Today I am authoring my weekly column from the grounds of The Whole Hog BBQ and Music Festival in North Haverhill, NH. I am part of the Smoking Barrels crew, headed by Jeremy Cramer of Fairlee. The barbecue contest consists of three events; spareribs, shoulder and whole hog. The Whole Hog BBQ and Music Festival is in its 6th year, having originated on the Memorial Field in Bradford before moving to the North Haverhill Fairgrounds last year. There are nine teams competing in this Memphis BBQ Network (MBN) sanctioned event. The array of cookers and barbecue contraptions, from the Big Green Egg cookers to home made smokers is impressive. No two teams have similar equipment, and, Lord knows, they all have different recipes and barbecue techniques. Some teams start their pigs and shoulders while the sun is still up on Saturday evening, while others don’t put their meats on the grill until after the sun sets and the Big Dipper comes out. The variety of heat sources is also all over the lot; some teams are using homemade charcoal, some Kingsford briquettes, or others commercial charcoal. Some cookers have rotisseries, while most cook directly on a steel grate over charcoal or on a rack elevated above the grate. All the cookers have covers so the meat cooks in a closed atmosphere with some smoke exhaustion.
Barbecue is a distinctly American invention, although cooking over an open fire or with smoke has been occurring for eons, worldwide. Not to be confused with “grilling,” where the meat or vegetables to be cooked are placed on a grate over red hot coals, and are cooked by radiant heat, similar to what happens when you use your oven’s broiler, barbecue is a slow, indirect heat method of cooking, developed primarily in the American south. The barbecue cookers have drafts and vents that permit the cook to control the temperature in the covered cooker, and the ideal for a pig roast is 200 to 250 degrees. This produces a long, slow cooking in a smoke filled atmosphere, producing a falling apart meat with a decidedly smoky flavor. Many contestants rub or marinate or inject their meat with a flavoring treatment designed to complement and season the flesh. Brown sugar, vinegars, salt and a wide variety of herbs and spices are often used. Everybody has their own favorite formula, and while general descriptions abound (if you choose to believe them), few actual details are enunciated. Barbecue folks are a genial lot, given to an evening of companionship and story telling. But even late at night, after swapping tales and quaffing some suds, rub particulars remain untold.
At The Whole Hog, the head judge inspects the meat to be cooked on-site to be sure that no marinades or rubs have been applied in advance. Some cooks mop their meat, primarily spareribs, with a sauce toward the end of the cooking period to give it added flavor. Others just dry rub their ribs and serve them plain when they are done. “Wet or dry?” is a server’s question to patrons at barbecue joints all over the south. I saw both methods here.
I found it interesting that during the judging, the judges were instructed to use only their hands to handle and eat the meat. While we provided silverware for the judges’ use, most adhered to the MBN standard and picked up the meat, pulled it apart to see if it was tender, smelled it closely, looked it over carefully and then ate it. If a sauce was provided, most ate the meat unadorned before trying it with the sauce. One of the visuals of properly barbecued meat is the smoke ring that results from the long smoky cooking. This smoke ring is a light pink coloring just below the surface of the meat that results from smoke and water in the meat interacting during the lengthy cooking process. Another is the looseness of the bone, and the judge wants to see the bone removed to be sure that the meat is thoroughly cooked. The bone should be white or near white.
The contestants start gathering on Saturday morning, bringing in their equipment, supplies, coolers, tables and chairs. Most have a camper trailer, which includes a bathroom and sink, although each contestant is supplied with running water and access to an electrical outlet. Mark Fifield of Bare Bones actually brought a small three bay sink for his team, but then he’s highly experienced in pig roasting and has accumulated a large variety of equipment over the years. As soon as the head judge inspects each contestant’s meats, we are all off and running, mixing rubs and marinades, if not already prepared in advance, and getting our meats injected or seasoned in preparation for the actual cooking. The on-site judging schedule dictates each teams timing as to when their meats will be placed on their cooker as ribs are due at 9:30 on Sunday morning, shoulders at 10:30 and whole hog at 11:30. Most teams man their cookers throughout the night as cooking temperatures are closely monitored to assure even, slow cooking. The meats must be thoroughly cooked, but not to the point of being mushy. Tender, falling off the bone meat is the ideal for southern barbecue, and it is often called “pulled pork” to connote the fact that no utensils are needed, its that tender. It shreds under your touch.
Once the meat schedule is worked out and the cooks know when to get each piece on, its time to decorate your area for the judges. In our case we have a tropical scene while the No Swiners, a family team from Thetford and Corinth, has a farm theme complete with hay bales, sponge painted kitchenware on a wrought iron stand and baby pig figurines scattered amongst the many ribbons they have won at The Whole Hog festival over the years.
In the morning, all the contestants are busy with their final preparations and hoping that their meats will be cooked just right, in time for the judging. Judging consists of two events, the blind box and on-site judging. In the blind box, each team is supplied with a covered container with a number and name of the product (ribs, shoulder or whole hog). The team selects portions of their barbecue for inclusion in the blind box and it is delivered at a preset time to the blind box judges. Shortly thereafter the first on-site judge arrives at your cooking area. By this time, we are all adorned with our Smoking Barrel shirts and aprons, looking spiffy, if not a little tired from the lack of sleep. The area had been raked and all extraneous equipment, trash and the like cleared away. The judge is invited in and shown the meat on the cooker. We introduce the team and discuss where the meat came from, what type of fuel we used and how the meat was cooked. A portion is placed on a clean plate and served to the judge at a table where we have arranged a place setting with silverware and a glass of water. While the judge inspects and tastes the meat, we point out the characteristic smoke ring, the ease of removing the bone, and other salient points about our barbecue. The judge stays 10 to 12 minutes before thanking us and moving out of our area to complete their notes and scoring. Meanwhile, we fill out our scoring of the judge on a preprinted form. Then a second on-site judge arrives and we repeat the process. In all, each product has three on-site visits from a different judge. Meanwhile, the blind boxes were judged by 4 different individuals outside our view.
After the initial round of judging, three finalists are selected for the final judging. This process takes an additional couple of hours to complete, and by this time the crowd, which started to arrive around noon and has been entertained by some great blues bands, is restive and eager for the “people’s choice” time to arrive. During this period, which commences at 3:45 pm, people go to each booth and receive samples of the meats cooked. After sampling a variety of contestants’ offerings, they vote their choice for the best barbecue.
I won’t give the final results, which are published elsewhere in this newspaper, except to say that the big winner, both Grand Champion and Peoples’ Choice, was Bare Bones, and they will now compete next spring in Memphis for the MBN national championship. Good luck to Bare Bones, and we know you will represent us well.