I was in Houston recently. And, as is essential whenever I am in that city, I ate. Or more precisely, I ate meat. Or even more precisely, I ate BBQ, in dangerously large, meat-sweats inducing quantities.
It was a marathon effort, if I must say so myself, but over four concentrated days I managed to successfully cram in most of my usual Houston meat haunts. Like Morton’s, the grand-daddy of steakhouses – their rib-eye on the bone gets me every time. And like Perry’s, whose house special is a chop that is smoky, crisp, and also the size of my head. I always enjoy the “small-cut” lunchtime offering, but I have not yet had the cojones to tackle the dinner version, which is three times the size, and definitely more meat than is healthy for any one human to consume in a single sitting.
Or like Pappas, a traditional BBQ joint located under a parking garage in the downtown. The place has all the style of a high school cafeteria, but more than makes up for a lack of charm with its decadent mixed plate, overflowing with succulent brisket, fat juicy ribs, and to-die-for smoked chicken. The queue snaking out the door most days isn’t wrong.
And then there is my personal Houston favorite, Rudy’s, a corrugated iron shack cum gas station on the side of a freeway. There you order your meat – beef, chicken, pork, spicy sausage or the lot – by the pound. It comes with heaped bowls of sides, and is rather Spartanly served up on prison issue metal trays. But so delicious I defy anyone to not lick their fingers clean.
I could go on, but you get the point: for the committed carnivore, there a lot of fleisch on offer in Houston. Seriously, it is a wonder that the whole place doesn’t keel over and collapse under the weight of its own cholesterol.
But here’s where things get interesting. You see, on previous trips to Texas, my meat indulgences have been little more than thinly disguised gluttony. Whereas on this particular visit, it was different, in that I found myself really appreciating the art involved in all that BBQ.
Yes, that’s right: art, and BBQ. Two words not often combined in the same sentence. So allow me to explain….
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am partial to a well-cooked piece of meat (see for example my prior post: On Beef & Liberty). Although this fleshy love affair does not exist in a vacuum – I am fortunate to have friends who share this interest, thus ensuring I almost always have a willing partner-in-crime.
About six months ago one of these friends, seeking to up the meat-ante considerably, bought an American-style smoker, which was installed in the backyard. Never mind that the backyard in question was in Melbourne, Australia.
Ever since I have received periodic updates of his BBQ adventures, as the smoker has been put through its paces. All the classics have featured in these reports, from brisket to steaks, chicken, and pulled pork, and usually accompanied by tantalizing photos.
And then, my friend told me that he had decided to go one step further, by registering a team in the 3rd annual Australian BBQ Festival. A festival of meat that was held at Melbourne’s Flemington Racecourse, on a gray and overcast Sunday, about four weeks ago.
As luck would have it, I was scheduled to fly from Sydney to Los Angeles that very day, and my flight involved a 12 hour layover in Melbourne. Just enough time for me to get from the airport to the racecourse, don an apron, and help out as an impromptu member of the Toothless Carnivores BBQ team.
Of course, I did it.
Outside of the United States, a barbecue is an outdoors fire or grill, on which you char bits of meat. It is a staple of Aussie culture; what you might do on a sunny weekend afternoon, with some mates gathered around, and a few cold cans of beer.
Not so in the US of A, however, where “competition BBQ” is a different thing altogether. No longer a casual weekend time-filler, it has become a serious pursuit, with rules and regulations to follow, various governing bodies, tournaments held all around the country, celebrity pit masters (that’s what the head honcho BBQ guy is called), huge crowds of spectators, big cash prizes, and live television coverage.
Yes, for reals, it seems that in the home of the obese, BBQ has become a sport.
And the big kahuna of this only-in-America sport is the Kansas City Barbecue Society (“KCBS”, for those in the know), which oversees the biggest and most prestigious of tournaments. KCBS has also begun to spread its wings internationally, including to Australia. And thus the event I attended, which was held under KCBS rules, and was supervised by a bunch of guest judges flown in all the way from the States.
So how did it work?
Well, under KCBS rules, a team can consist of any number of people, led by a pit master. Although it seems no matter its size, the first duty of any team is to choose a snappy name for itself. I especially liked teams “Getting Piggy with It”, “Natural Born Grillers”, and “Jack the Ribber”. Although for me the clear winner had to be team “Donald Rump”, dedicated to “making BBQ great again.” (BTW, this team has an active social media presence, if you want to follow them. As the pit master of the Donald Rumps told me: “we tweet just as much as he does …”).
The day before the tournament, each team was allocated a space in the competition area, in which to set up their BBQ. It was at this point that we got an inkling of the seriousness with which some people approach the simple task of cooking meat. Our team – amateurs that we were – showed up with a single, medium-sized smoker, a box of knives, a portable cooler, and a few foldaway tables. Whereas the team in the space adjacent to us, by way of counter example, showed up with a moving truck, in which they had three massive smokers, a mobile kitchen, fridges and freezers, and professional preparation equipment that even Gordon Ramsey would have eyed with envy.
Once set up, all teams were required to prepare meat in four categories: chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder, and brisket (plus, in homage to the “native” Australian cuisine, two other cuts were also added to the usual KCBS line-up: lamb chops and steak).
Prior to the start of cooking, all meat had to be inspected by a KCBS invigilator, to ensure it has not been pre-treated in any way. But then once approved, it was over to the teams, who worked furiously to apply proprietary rubs, soak the meat in carefully composed marinades, and then set them on the grill to smoke. Most folks worked through the night, slow cooking their meats for many hours, constantly checking and basting to achieve the optimal blend of flavor and tenderness.
But no matter how and when a team chose to work, they were all governed by the same inviolable deadline: each cut of meat had to be ready for service and judging at a pre-specified time. 2pm on Sunday for the chicken, 2.30pm for the ribs, and each half hour thereafter for the other cuts.
At the precise appointed time, each team was required to serve up six portions of meat, delivered to the judge’s tent in a plain white numbered box, for judging. Once all cuts have been served and evaluated, the judge’s scores were aggregated, and the winners were announced: a champion for each individual cut, and a grand-champion, being the pit master who got the most points across the event as a whole.
Sounds simple, right?
Well, no, not really.
It was, in fact, a hugely complex affair. In the world of competitive BBQ, I quickly learned, you need a lot more than the ability to rustle up a nicely cooked hunk of steak.
Let’s begin at the pre-tournament briefing, which was held in a large tent at the side of the competition area. There, representatives from all 43 competing teams gathered, and were addressed at length by the head judge, who spoke to the assembled masses with all the fervor of a Sunday preacher.
He gave us some useful tips, filled with BBQ jargon and lingo. Indecipherable things, like: “we want to see slices with shine”; “if there are burnt ends, put them in”; “cut point but close to the fat cap”; “smoke ring counts”; “no patterns”.
And, as if my head wasn’t already spinning enough, the head judge then proceeded to provide a long dissertation on the all-important subject of presentation. Because, as I was to discover, KCSB events mandate very strict rules for how meat should be served. An example: garnish is strictly limited to lettuce or parsley (kale, much to my delight, is specifically banned). Or another rule: any sauce should be applied directly to the meat, because pooled sauce at the bottom of the presentation box is grounds for instant disqualification (sauce offences are apparently taken pretty seriously).
This tone continued wherever I went that day. Like the members of the team in the next lot to us (aka “All Up in My Grill”), who engaged in a 16 minute conversation about garnish strategy. I know, because I timed them.
The big issues covered were whether to use lettuce vs parsley, and whether to “paint” the bottom of the box with a sauce (this is a legit tactic, apparently, not to be confused with the aforementioned “no sauce pooling” rule). Eventually, our neighbors settled on parsley and no paint (“the judges are not as progressive as you’d think” was the given reason). And then a member of the team spent the next 3 hours (yes, 3 hours!) hand picking perfect bits of parsley with which to decorate the edges of their white box. As I may have mentioned, people take competition BBQ very, very seriously.
Although nowhere was this seriousness more evident that at the judging.
At each appointed time slot, 43 individual boxes of meat arrived at the judge’s tent, to be distributed at random to one of eight tables, at each of which sat six judges. Each table of judges thus wound up with between five and seven boxes of meat to judge. This then allowed for a blind taste tasting, each team’s meat portions being considered by six judges at random, who would award points for appearance, taste and texture.
The whole judge’s enclosure was set behind a white security fence, behind of which crowds gathered to watch. The fence was manned strategically by big burly security guards, I can only assume so as to prevent crazed members of the crowd vaulting the fence and making off with the meats.
The judging process officially commenced with a tournament official ceremonially opening each box, and passing it slowly in front of each judge. The judge in question would lean over, stare intently at the meat inside for several seconds, take notes, and then when satisfied would nod, allowing the box to move on to inspection by the next judge. The whole routine was repeated for each box, and carried out in a total, reverential silence.
Once done with the visuals, each judge then proceeded to help themselves to a portion of meat from each box, placing it in the corresponding section of a numbered tray on the table in front of them. Following which each portion would be variously sniffed, poked, prodded, tasted and scored. Conversation between judges was kept to a minimum. Some judges sipped water between each mouthful; others nibbled crackers to cleanse their palettes. A couple even spat out the tit-bits of half chewed meat once done, in much the same way a wine-taster might spit after a sip of fine Bordeaux.
At one point I tried to take a photo of the proceedings, and was immediately pounced upon by a muscled security guard and a tournament official. “No pictures,” the official admonished me in a loud, American-accented voice, while the security guard glowered in the background – he clearly thought I deserved to be locked up in chains and frog-marched to the exit.
I quickly put my camera away, shame-faced at my faux-pas, and instead began a brief conversation with Bill, the official who had overseen my near arrest. He told me that he had flown to Australia all the way from Memphis for the event, and that this was his second time officiating at a Down Under BBQ event.
I asked him how it rated compared to those he had been to in the USA. His response: “Well, in the USA the field of competitors can be 3 or 4 time as large. But the standard here is very competitive. BBQ in Australia has come a long way. You should be very proud.”
I left with a smile on my face.
And I guess the all-important question: how did we do?
Well, we came 43rd out of 43 teams. Which sucked, but then again, like I may have mentioned, competition BBQ is no place for amateur hacks. For those who do it, it is a serious sport like any other, for which people train and practice, putting in hundreds of hours over hot smokers.
So I may have some way to go yet before I have earned m BBQ stripes. Until then, I will keep practicing hard. It is a thankless task, but I guess someone’s got to do it. And at least it has given me a newfound appreciation for the skill that goes into all that Houston BBQ I love so much. When done right, it really is a kind of art.
Now, if only they could figure out how to make BBQ eating into a competitive sport, then we’d be talking …