I got an offer I couldn’t refuse a couple of weeks ago ... a gentleman named Garland Hudgins emailed me on some past columns I had written on becoming a barbeque judge and the opening of barbeque competition season in South Carolina.
Garland and his wife, Rebecca, make up the Big GQ BBQ competition team (actually it’s Big GQ and ’Becca Too, but that doesn’t fit on the banner) and asked me to join them Friday and Saturday for the Pickin’ & Piggin’ Barbeque Cook-off at Saluda Shoals. As part of a professional barbeque team, I could see what actually happens over the course of a cook-off.
Naturally, I accepted.
Now, I have learned that there’s waaaay much more to competition BBQ than just paying your entry fee and hauling in a smoker and settling in.
Garland gave me a timetable that he and Rebecca follow the week leading up to a cook-off. It goes like this:
Thursday is also the day that the Hudgins go over a long checklist to make sure that their 7-by-14 foot trailer has everything they will need for the two-day competition. They will also try to get a really good night’s sleep, as they will be living in their trailer until Saturday afternoon.
Garland and Rebecca like to arrive at the site early (around 9:30, 10 a.m.) and stake out a spot that is on level ground and centrally located from bathrooms and meeting spaces. He positions the trailer and sets up water and power (gotta have music and lights). The couple set up the tents, cookers, sink, tables and chairs, trying to have everything done before heading out for lunch. After that, there might be time to sneak in a nap before the serious business begins.
No BBQ wimp
I arrive Friday, just before 3 p.m. Garland has told me that I don’t have to stay overnight, I can come back in the morning, but in my mind that’s just wimping out. Besides, I don’t want to miss a thing. I drive a Mini Cooper, so I’ve folded down the back seats and created a bed (if you’d be so generous to call it that) with sofa cushions, blankets and pillows. I’ve also packed a small cooler of snacks and beverages, charged up my iPhone and I’m all in. Luckily, there’s a parking spot directly across from Garland’s setup so I won’t have to stumble around in the dark too much.
Garland starts setting up his smokers around 4 p.m. For the butts, he will use two Weber Smoky Mountain (WSM) smokers. Each WSM will hold four butts over two stacked racks. He is particular when it comes to layering the coal and wood combination. He starts with charcoal briquettes and then searches through his bags of hickory chunks to find pieces that don’t have too much tree bark. Rebecca tells me he has been known to take a hand rake or welder’s gloves and move the bits around to his liking after the fire has been lit.
For the ribs, Garland uses a Tallboy smoke box that burns charcoal sticks rather than bricks. It’s a little over 4 feet tall and has racks set every 6 inches or so. The top part of the Tallboy will be used to smoke the ribs. An aluminum pan set one rack below the ribs acts as a heat deflector. The Tallboy will also be used as a warming station for sauces Saturday.
Around 4:30, the event organizers deliver the pork butts and ribs to the teams. Competitors in the South Carolina Barbeque Association (SCBA) schedule are supplied meat from the same source so that all cook teams start out on a level playing field. What happens next is up to the cooks.
The organizers have a cook team meeting at 6 p.m. Friday. This is basically a check-in and chance to go over the rules (just meat only in the boxes, no garnishes, no extra sauces, no foreign objects) and make sure that everyone understands that their turn-in time for a competition box of pork butt is 10 a.m. Saturday (actual time window is 9:50 to 10:10 a.m., no earlier and absolutely no later), ribs (an optional challenge) need to be in at the turn-in table at 11 a.m. The Pickin and Piggin organizers also have supplied dinner, so after a meal of hotdogs and hamburgers, Garland and Rebecca begin the process of prepping the meat.
Now we’re prepping a pork butt for competition: Garland relies on his senses to help him. He runs a gloved hand around the butt, feeling for any rough patches of gristle or extruding bone or pockets of fat. These bits will get expertly trimmed off the butt. The goal is to remove any surface flaws or diminish instances where the butcher might have damaged an end.
The fat cap running along the top of the butt will stay in place. This will help the flavor (some fat is good fat) and keep the butt from sticking to the grill.
Garland teases out a piece resembling a tenderloin near the end of the butt, the piece cookers call the “money meat.” This is the most flavorful portion and should remain part of the overall butt during the cooking process. It is separated from the whole butt only after Garland is happy that the butts have been cooked properly. The money meat and the “tubes” (smaller versions of the tenderloin), along with the burnt ends (you know, those mahogany-colored pieces of meat on the outside of the butt), are what the judges will be looking at in the final presentation box.
Garland hands off the trimmed butts one-by-one for Rebecca and me to coat in the dry rub. With the exception of the fat cap, every surface of the butt has to be packed with rub.
Those done, the rubbed butts are handed back to Garland for injecting the sauce.
While the butts rest for a bit, Garland and Rebecca start setting up the temperature gauges that will monitor the grill temp as well as the internal temperature of the meat. With those ready to go, Garland brings out the meat. He fires up the coals while Rebecca places the meat on the grills and hooks up the thermometers.
When the fire is where he prefers, Garland carefully places the grills on top of the fire pan and puts the lid on the smoker. Garland believes in starting with a cold grill and cold meat over a hot fire. The meat will continue to take in the wood smoke until the internal temperature of the butt reaches 140 degrees, creating a reddish bark ring around the surface of the butt. A good smoke ring is another thing a judge will look for in competition.
He gives the lid a twist for good luck (and to make sure it’s secure) and checks the temperature gauges. It’s a bit past 7 p.m. Friday. Hudgins will periodically check the gauges throughout the night but no one will touch or open the WSMs until 7 a.m. Saturday. That’s when Garland will check the butts and start prepping for the judges box.
Around 10 p.m. it’s off to bed. Garland and Rebecca recline in anti-gravity chairs in the trailer. The trailer has a heater and air conditioner. I wander off to my makeshift bed in the hatch of my Mini Cooper. Surprisingly, I don’t wake until 5 a.m.
Competition mode kicks in
5 a.m. Saturday, clock alarms are going off everywhere. Time for Garland to fire up the Tallboy for the ribs.
Just as with the butts, Garland has inspected the racks and trimmed them down to get a more squarish appearance and coated them with his dry rub mixes. He places the prepared ribs side-by-side on a rack that is then placed in the top of the Tallboy. That smoker will not be opened again until just before 9 a.m.
Around 9 a.m., it’s time to check the butts. Garland takes them out of the smoker and brings them into the trailer for inspection. This is when competition-mode kicks in.
Garland begins by looking at the butts and separating out the money meat and tubes from the best looking ones. He sorts them on the table and places the ones that will go to the judges in holding trays of finishing sauce. He has everything sorted and cut precisely the way he wants .
At 9:50 a.m., Garland cranks up AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” It’s a ritual that he and Rebecca have: as the music begins, they face each other and give one another a fist bump and a kiss and then turn to the table and the task at hand. Garland has timed this perfectly over the years. He knows what he should be doing during the song and shouts out to Rebecca “close the box” or “open the box” as he gets into the rhythm and the bass booms in the trailer.
At 4 minutes, 20 seconds, Garland is done. Rebecca has cleaned the edges of the box with clean paper towels and Q-tips to make sure there are no drips of sauce or stray bits of meat. Garland’s taken a picture of the finished box, Rebecca has closed the lid. They face each other and kiss as Angus winds down over the speakers. Garland picks up the box and heads off to the check-in area set up in the next parking area. Now it’s all up to the judges ...
Serve it up!
As soon as Garland exits with his box, Rebecca and I start to break down the rest of the butts.
Using heatproof gloves under rubber gloves, we start pulling the pork butts apart and placing the meat into serving trays. The paying public will be here in an hour and we have to tear apart six whole butts and the remaining pieces that didn’t go to the judges. As we get to work, Rebecca reminds me to take out the fatty parts and bones (the gnarly bits) and throw them away.
Garland returns and preps his ribs for the 11 a.m. turn-in. He has put a finish of brown sugar and butter on the racks. He thinks the rib box looks OK but isn’t too happy with the final flavor (he thinks he went too sweet).
At 11 a.m., folks start streaming into the park ... and I start serving up Garland’s barbeque. His final flavor profile for the pulled pork has a light tomato/vinegar-pepper vibe. It has a little bit of a kick with the red pepper flakes and some folks come back for seconds.
Garland and Rebecca can relax a little bit and visit with friends and co-workers from BlueCross/BlueShield while I happily serve up the ’Q.
I stay at the serving table while they start the process of breaking down the smokers and cleaning the site. A little after 3 p.m., the SCBA representative announces the winners. Big GQ didn’t place this time, and I’m feeling bummed about that. But Garland has this philosophy: as long as he’s having fun and is able to give back to the community (SCBA competitions are almost always charity fundraising events), he’s happy. Winning, for him, is just a bonus.