Barbecue Ribs Put to the Test

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A billowing cloud wafts through chill morning air, so tangy you can almost taste the barbecue ribs. Tents and recreational vehicles encircle Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, as legions of campers hover over an army of grills, waiting to taste anything from barbecue ribs to barbecue brisket to burnt ends. Colorful flags lift a leisurely salute. A guitarist strums as garbage crews make their sweep.

Welcome to the American Royal, where barbecue teams have traveled from across the country to compete for bragging rights and $100,000 in prize money. Here, lawyers, biologists and garage mechanics seize the chance to go grill to grill with full-fledged restaurant owners.

Banners announce The Slabs, I Que, Mason Dixon Swine, and more than 500 other teams vying for honors in open and invitational events. Some have spent Friday night partying, others tending their fires. This morning, they’re all set to take up the gauntlet.

This annual October competition celebrates one of America’s favorite comfort foods.

“Barbecue is the hot new old food,” says Carolyn Wells, executive director and co-founder of the Kansas City Barbeque Society. And she’s not kidding when she says “old.”

Although finer points of barbecue history remain subject to debate, most agree that early cultures preserved meats in the sun and that, in the Americas, indigenous people added smoke to ward off insects. West Indies natives called this process barbacoa, although some give naming rights to French-speaking pirates who termed the Caribbean whole-hog feast de barbe et queue, “from beard to tail.”

Historians trace the beginnings of barbecue in the United States to the South, particularly the Carolinas, where imported and native swine thrived with little care. Cooks found that smoke and slow cooking helped tenderize tougher cuts of meat, and vinegar helped preserve the meat and enhance its flavor. Pits and smokehouses began to replace traditional drying racks.

Reports of this type of cooking in the United States date to the 1600s. For the poor, barbecue became the art of turning less desirable portions of the pig into something tasty, yet some of our nation’s founders mention gatherings around fires to slow cook meat, as well.

Each region worked its own magic on foods they had in abundance. Each perfected its own style. In the South, the focus was on pork, with vinegar and mustard bases. In Texas, beef brisket and red sauce became the barbecue of choice.

Cattle drives, the railroad and jazz carried barbecue to Kansas City, where these regional styles merged. Kansas City added its own take on this style of cooking, using both pork and beef, slathering both in thick, sticky sauce.

By the 1940s, a good many Americans started cooking outdoors. They would barbecue (cook slowly over smoke) or grill (cook hot and fast on a grill). Both types of cooking served as main courses for a barbecue, a social gathering for a meal cooked out-of-doors.

From the Carolinas, barbecue has morphed its way across the United States. And while purists may prefer true regional styles, today’s transient society tends to blur traditions. So, too, do cook-off contests, which began small in the 1960s and have burgeoned into major events.

Pros and hobbyists

Carolyn Wells celebrates all things barbecue, especially barbecue ribs. People appreciate regional differences, but they like to be creative, too, she says. “Good barbecue is good barbecue no matter where you go.”

And it has evolved into sport as well. Her Kansas City Barbeque Society, which sanctions the American Royal, began in 1985 with 20 enthusiasts. Today, it counts 8,000 members worldwide and sanctions more than 300 competitions throughout the year that lead up to this national event.

Other high-profile contests include the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest at the Memphis in May International Festival and the World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest at the Houston Livestock Show, but the largest sanctioned event is the Royal, on the first weekend of October.

Rules of engagement require wood or charcoal. From there, choices abound. Apple, cherry, hickory, oak – all woods impart different tastes. From an array of flavorings, cooks concoct an arsenal of rubs, mops and sauces. They may share a tip or two but, as they try to outfox friendly rivals, they keep strategic secrets to themselves.

“Tastes are in constant evolution, or devolution,” says Jeff Stehley, head cook for Slaughter House Five from Kansas City, Kansas.

Today he’s reverting to a method he used five years ago with the hope that evaluators see old as new. “Judges’ tastes are running sweeter and sweeter and sweeter. I’m hoping to buck that trend,” he says.

His competitive eye is on Big Bob Gibson, of Decatur Alabama, a team that won the Royal in 2004 and Memphis in 2000 and 2003. Gibson’s chief cook, Chris Lilly, married into this gig. His wife’s great-grandfather was Big Bob himself. “I married her for the recipes,” Chris confides with a grin.

As with most southerners, pork is his specialty. “We use a really light apple juice-based injection; we add seasoning and use rub outside,” he says. He cooks over charcoal and pignut hickory and does not wrap his meat. “Do not open the cooker,” he cautions. “Do not peek. When it comes out, it’s ready to eat.”

Chris turned his talent into a profession, but team Stoddard and Brown has no intent to go pro. “Lord, no,” says building engineer Andrew Stoddard. “This is fun as a hobby – but as a business, no thank you!”

He and Brett Brown, a sociologist researcher, drove 1,100 miles from northern Virginia. Brown sleeps in a small tent; Stoddard in the back of his truck. They use natural meats and cook “hotter and faster than traditional. This works for us and lets us get some sleep,” Brett says. “We like to keep things simple.”

Their recipe reflects Carolinian taste. For pork, they combine apple juice, vinegar, sugar and salt, spike it with spices, and smoke at 300 degrees. When done, they wrap the meat in foil, cover it with a blanket and let it rest.

Danny and Kay Spiegelhauer, who run a paint and body shop in Houston, are spending their 44th wedding anniversary at the invitational. Danny designed and built the oversized pit that Team Impact totes from place to place. “We don’t use sauce on anything as a rule,” offers Kay. “Once you take it off the pit, you don’t touch it.”

Julie and Brendan Burek – a.k.a. Transformer BBQ of Canton, Massachusetts – packed their knives in a suitcase, hopped a plane and borrowed a smoker from friends. “We’re kind of new to this,” Julie says as she stirred beans for the side dish competition.

Barbie Strein – enjoying a beer and chocolate pie for breakfast – left her husband’s team in 1993 to strike out on her own. Most women start out with their husbands, she says. “He’ll ask, ‘Which of these do you like best?’ You’ll say – then he’ll enter the other one. That’s when you branch off to do your own thing.”

Her hubby’s team is Lost Gonzo; hers is Lost Gonzo Too.

Cooking with friends now, the Fort Worth pawnshop owner is learning to adapt to the varied rules of competition. “In Texas, we get people out of the crowd and say ‘do you like it or not,'” Barbie says. Here, even garnishes make a difference.

Playing by the rules

Ah, yes, the rules.

“Rules are created to make a level playing field so hobbyists can go against big-name stars,” says Steve Grinstead, a payroll supervisor from Ohio and volunteer judge.

Behind royal blue curtains, some 600 judges from 35 states sit six to a table, taking chefs’ offerings at random. Once the barbecue arrives, talk ceases. Some judges sniff, all taste, some lick their fingers. Water and crackers cut taste between entries.

As chicken, pork, ribs and brisket arrive at the table, each is scored on appearance, taste and tenderness. To win, says Doug Naslund, correctional facility director and head chef for Skin-n-Bones of Pueblo, Colorado, “You have to cook well and you have to get lucky on the tables.”

Some judges have competed before; others, like Grinstead, plan to try it someday. “I can cook all four meats,” he says. “I just can’t get them done when they need to get done.”

And that’s the trick. At the appointed hour, meat must hit perfection. With time ticking, runners rush insulated containers to the judging arena.

Mike Dietzen, running for Habitual Smokers from northwest Arkansas, pauses to assess the scene. He knows that judges shuffle entries once they pass check-in, yet he wants to place his ribs as far from the stiffest competitors as possible. “I’m superstitious,” he says.

He picks his line and lets luck take it from there.

Event draws crowd

From her ringside seat, Carolyn Wells sees interest in barbecue growing.

She attributes this to the growth in the types of barbecue restaurants, to development of “fabulous sides,” and to the attention barbecue receives on the Food Channel. “Barbecue people see themselves as a couple steps off center,” she says. “They’re colorful, opinionated. People see that on television, and they think that looks like fun.”

Plus, she says, “Barbecue is the ultimate comfort food.” She notes a surge of contest participation since 9/11. For many, she says, “barbecue is their way of bonding, cocooning.”

Last year, 60,000 visitors attended the American Royal Barbecue, a festival featuring colorful characters, flying gargoyles, draft horses, cooking demonstrations, music, fireworks and, of course, great barbecue.

Many who rubbed shoulders with some of the cooking legends may have been inspired to join the ranks of the barbecue brigade to create their own twist on this ancient art, and, perhaps, to become habitual smokers themselves.

Freelance writer Carol Crupper, of Lawrence, Kansas, is partial to a Kansas City barbecue favorite: burnt ends.

  • Published on Jun 10, 2009
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