Cooking in New Jersey
Over the weekend I got a chance to compete in Guitarbeque, which is the New Jersey – Kansas City Barbeque Society – state championship contest. Guitarbeque is primarily a music festival held in Asbury Park as part of its ongoing efforts to revitalize this ocean front community.
Asbury Park is a strange town. It must have been something special in the 20s to 50s, but it’s nothing now. I can’t believe that ocean front property, less than one hour from NYC isn’t being developed. It’s worse than Coney Island. I can understand why Coney Island will always remain a slum; it was filled with public housing projects by Robert Moses, but Asbury looks like it has the potential to be something great.
The locals keep saying that gentrification is just around the corner, but I don’t believe them. Last time I was in Asbury Park was in 1988 for an Amway meeting which was held in the world famous Paramount Theatre. The theatre was falling apart then and it’s falling apart now. It’s really a shame because it really is a beautiful building. I do hope that the town comes back, but it’s going to be a long haul. One thing that really pissed me off was that there is a $5 charge to go on the beach. You would think that a town that is trying to "come back" and attract tourists would offer free admission to the beach. Let people spend money in the stores and restaurants! On, that’s right, there aren’t any!
The barbecue contest seemed to be a second thought to the music festival. That being said, the contest was very well run. Arlie, the organizer, whose last name I don’t know, did a great job. The volunteers were great, especially the tattooed lady on the golf cart. (Groucho – where are you when I need you?) There was this HUGE dalmatian called Abercrombie who wandered the grounds freely. This monster looked like a mix of dalmatian and mastiff, but I was assured he was pure bred. Pigs were everywhere. Dancing pigs, snorting pigs, smoking pigs, pigs in fire, a woman in a pig outfit, pigs arm in arm as they headed into the overns. Guarding one site was Uncle Sam with a billy club. Can anyone say freak show?
I got to cook as a member of the BBQ-Brethren cooking team. The team for this cook-off consisted of Phil Rizzardi, the Grand Pooh-Bah of the brethren; David Little, of the Southern Brethren fame; and myself. I got there about 8:30 on Friday and Phil and Dave were already there and setting up. We put up the tent, setup the tables and built the kitchen. We divided the tent into two areas so that we could work in private in the back section. Out front we set up a table with Phil’s hardware (read that as trophies) from past contests. Also on the table were Fudo, the god of fire, two Schaefer beer cans and Parrott Head’s hat. The Brethren banner was hung in the tent with care in hopes that the meat inspector soon would be there.
So with me in an apron, and Phil and Dave in their caps, we settled in for a long crazy lap. In the kitchen were spices galore. Phil makes all his rubs, mops, sauces and glazes on the fly, so he emptied out his home kitchen and dumped it here. It was like being in Costco without the organization. We had three tables in the back of the tent. Two tables were covered with shit. I set up another table way in the back for the sinks. We were provided with a hose for water and an extension cord for power.
The meat was stored in coolers in the back. We had Kobe beef brisket, Tyson chicken, and Swift, I think, baby back ribs. Phil picked up the pork at a local butcher of his, so I’m not sure what brand they were. The meat inspector came by and took a cursory look to make sure that we hadn’t tampered with the meat and that it was held at the proper temperature. Phil was pissed off that he had left the prime rib which was going to be our dinner at home, but apart from that we were ready to go.
Leaving Dave behind in the tent, Phil and I went out shopping to pick up the garnishes, ice, vodka and a new prime rib. We got back to the tent and fired up the Klose, put in the rib and some racks of lamb and waited for dinner.
I was raring to go, this was my first contest and I hate not being busy, but there was nothing to do now except wait. And wait. And wait. This is not something I expected. Dave was full of interesting tales, and he is blessed with the ability to pick up a story from where he left off at any time. Mid-word if necessary. And he has lots of stories.
Friday night was a food fest with the neighbors – Zak’s Barbeque. They had made up some fresh corn on the cob, shrimp kabobs and some sort of rice which I didn’t eat. We brought over the lamb and the prime rib and everyone ate and BS’d about BBQ. Other teams wandered in and I wondered around talking with other groups.
So we brined, injected and rubbed the food. The brisket and pork butt were in the cookers by 10pm. We used the Weber Smokey Mountain Cookers for these. The chicken and ribs were brined and sitting in the coolers. So what did we do from 10pm to 4am when we decided to try and get some sleep? Damned if I know. I know we were busy prepping the chicken and the ribs, but I can’t tell you the sequence of events. Sometime during the evening, I noticed that some card reading was taking place in our neighbor’s site. I went over and was given a very disturbing 10 second read by their physic. Well, boy howdy, now the freak show was complete. Fortune tellers!
Picture this. On the edge of this patch of grass that passes for a park in Asbury Park, two grown men crawl into a tent at 4 in the morning. I’m sure that the night before this “park” was crawling with hookers and drug dealers. The festival was setup with police blocking the entrances and patrolling all the time. I felt like I was sleeping in a refuge camp. Being a city boy, I never let my guard down. I couldn’t sleep. This setup was too un-natural for me to relax. Dave, however, continued to tell stories in his sleep. That guy can snore. Around 5 in the morning, Dave got up and I tried to get some sleep, but it didn’t work. After about 15 minutes I went out to the cookers.
Phil joined me and Dave about a half hour later. He was not a happy camper at this point. I guess he was feeling the pressure of the contest. Dave continued his story telling as he and I went off to clean the brine off the chicken and ribs. I had found a huge barrel that was setup in the middle of the park for people to wash their hands. It was still before sunrise, so it hadn’t been used yet. Dave felt a bit uneasy filling this up with the used brine, but I didn’t care. It was the best place for us to wash off our meat. It sure of hell was a lot easier than trying to use a hose back at our site.
We got back to the cooker and Phil wasn’t happy with our cleaning results. We had to dry the meat off before we could marinate. So we did and we marinated. We watched the temps on the WSMs and got the Klose fired up.
Sharon, Phil’s wife came by looking all nice and rested and Phil made her some eggs for breakfast and she went off for a run on the boardwalk. Later, Phil offered us breakfast and fired up some bacon on a gas stove. He then promptly forgot about it. The bacon burned while we did other things. Later we had some scrambled eggs with shells.
After everything was in the cookers, I cleaned up the back, putting away the spices and washing the dishes. I setup an area where I could work on the presentation boxes and went to work cleaning the lettuce. It was the dirtiest lettuce I’ve ever seen in my life. I needed to wash and dry every leaf all the way down to the crown.
About 11:00 the food network cameras started poking around. Phil got interviewed pretty thoroughly by this cute little lady producer. She asked me what my role was on the team and I said that I was the “pit bitch.” She laughed and said that she didn’t know if I could say that on camera, but later when I was being interviewed, they asked me the question again. So, let’s hope “pit bitch” makes it onto TV.
Phil and I were pulling chicken off the cooker, trying to determine which pieces were the 6 best for competition when the cameras struck again. This time Jim O’Conner from “All American Festivals” and “The Secret Life Of…” was here asking the questions. He asked to try some of the food and Phil gave him some wings. Jim took a bite and declared it delicious. He seemed to be very intrigued by the name BBQ-Brethren and our tag line Brothers in Smoke. He asked if Dave and Phil were brothers and they said no, and Dave was un-leashed on the media. Phil tried to cut him short, but I think that the film editor will be his only salvation.
I set up a box for the chicken presentation and Phil was determined to put 7 pieces of chicken in. Now the requirements only call for 6, but Phil kept repeating that an odd number of pieces looked better than an even number. The problem with that is 7 pieces wouldn’t fit cleanly in the box. So after much discussion we settled on 6. Because of this we were almost late getting this box to the judges table.
Sharon, easily being the most attractive of the team, was chosen as the runner. And run she did! Right into a string that was holding the banner into place. Right across her eyes and nose. But – she didn’t drop the box! What a team player. The poor woman had a red line across her face for the rest of the day.
Ribs were next and I was feeling the pressure. Phil had pulled off some and we were trying to pick out the best ones. Stupid me, I didn’t taste any of them, but only selected based on appearance. Phil and I disagreed again, so Sharon was brought in to decide. She chose the third alternative, but then changed her mind when I pointed out my first choice.
Again, Phil wanted to do 7 ribs. I had laid out the garnish in the box with a specific pattern of ribs in mind. Sharon called it a work of art and I was pretty pleased with it. 7 ribs, however was one too many for the design. Oh well, Phil’s the boss and I adjusted the presentation to fit his needs. Off went the ribs. This time we were right on schedule.
I think we all noticeably relaxed at this point. We were in the grove and things were going on schedule. Phil even answered a phone call from one of the other brethren.
Next up was the pulled pork. Dave pulled the pork almost to Phil’s satisfaction. This time Phil wanted a ring of the bark with a mound of pulled pork in the middle. I laid it out and wasn’t happy with the mound of pork. It looked like puked up spaghetti. Phil and I played with it until it was time to present. It looked pretty good by now.
A strange thing happened at this point. Phil, Dave and I had some free time to hang out and BS. So the three of us sat on the edge of the trailer and Sharon took our pictures. 10 minutes before turn in time and there we were taking a leisurely break.
Now -- the brisket. Phil was slicing one brisket and I tried it and hated it. It was dried out, but still tender. In my never to be humble opinion, it wasn’t competition quality brisket. Phil disagreed. Dave came in on my side and Phil started slicing the other brisket. This one was perfect, but I liked the taste of the original brisket better. I did the accordion test on this and it passed, so we decided to submit the second brisket. Phil cuts his brisket thick, but I was able to put it all in the box. I was running out of ideas on how to arrange the meat, so this time it was a very minimalist presentation of just green leaf lettuce and flat parsley. When it was done, it was absolutely beautiful. I think it was the best presentation of all.
Sharon and I walked the brisket to the judge’s tent. This time we were stopped by the camera man as he wanted to film us submitting the entry. What he really wanted to film was Sharon, and who can blame him? I asked him if he wanted to see the brisket, he said yes and filmed it. As fortune would have it, the Food Network has a shot of the first place brisket as it was submitted to the judges!
I looked down at the food. It wasn’t laid out how I designed it! SHIT!
I have a confession to make here. When I set up the boxes for the presentations, they were parallel to the edge of the table. They looked very nice and I was happy with them. However, when they were opened and presented to the judges, they would be turned 90 degrees. I hope the presentations didn’t suffer. I know the brisket looked good, actually I think it was more interesting that way. Who knows, I think we did OK.
The final results of the contest were: 1st in Brisket, 2nd in Chicken, and 4th overall. Damn. Not a bad showing, but nowhere near what I wanted. I was disappointed. I know Phil was disappointed too. We beat out some high level, even legendary teams, but I really wanted to win it overall. Oh well. Next time.
After the foods were all in for judging, we got hit with a great rain storm. Our tent was being ripped from the ground and we all had to hold it down. A vendor’s tent out in the field was ripped apart and another twisted like a ball of yarn. Everything got soaked. Very exciting, but it put an end to the contest. I was looking forward to hanging out and eating the other team’s Q.
The overall experience of competing was great. I hung out with two great guys. I couldn't have asked for better team mates. I ate good and great BBQ and have a new story to tell my grandchildren. Working with Phil and Dave was a great experience. I couldn’t have found two more different types of guys. I learned a lot about competition Q. Phil’s cooking techniques differed from mine in many ways. I’m going to try some of his methods at home. I don’t have a problem stealing the best.
To be completely honest, it was hard for me to take on a support role on the team. I knew it would be. I felt very out of place much of the time. I like being in charge. When we won, it was Phil’s victory, not mine and that was hard to take. Don't get me wrong. I had a great time. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Phil is an extremely generous guy and I’m fairly sure he doesn’t share my opinion, but it’s the truth. He picked the meat, he did the rubs and the marinades and he controlled the fires. He laid out the money. Me, I was his bitch, not his equal. There was nothing that I did that helped win that contest.
I’ve been thinking about what it will be like when I have my own team. Seeing all the things that need to be done, I wonder how much of it I can delegate and still feel comfortable. But that’s what it’s all about. Creating the Barbeque that will take the titles next year. Onward.