Purple Turtles Everywhere!
Lookie here! My buddies the Purple Turtles got some well deserved press. If you're anywhere near their home base of Norwalk CT and need barbecue, be sure to give these folks a call. They're one of the best caterers in Connecticut!
Greg Hunter and Nancee Gell
Cranking the heat on the competition
When it came time this month to go the extra yard in sweltering 100-degree heat in Yardley, Pa., Nancee Gell and Greg Hunter wilted at the prospect of firing up a second grill for the crowd pleaser – a caramelized, crispy crust for their barbecued chicken hot off the primary burners.
That spared the spouses an extra few moments of blistering work, but Gell suspects it cost their Purple Turtle competition team any shot at being named best in show at the BBQ on the Farm contest that weekend. No matter: These days they have more than enough trophies to fill their trailer – not to mention grills and smokers at their Norwalk home.
The summer barbecue competition season is in full swing in the Northeast, and on weekends Gell and Hunter lift their tongs to duel teams from throughout the region and nation, both weekend warriors and professional chefs.
By day, Gell is an integrated systems specialist at Security Specialists, a Stamford-based security installer, while Hunter is a paralegal for a commercial collection agency in White Plains, N.Y. The couple stumbled onto the competitive scene nearly a decade ago, after checking out a New Hampshire competition out of curiosity.
“This guy was cooking by himself, and someone suggested to us since we were wandering around we might as well give him a hand,” Gell recalled. “And we did.”
“That guy” was Gary Howard, whose Liquid Smoke and Smoke Ring teams have won awards at the World Barbecue Championship Cooking Contest held annually in – where else? – Memphis, Tenn. (If you guessed Kansas City, you were close – the recognized sanctioning authority for most competitions is the Kansas City Barbeque Society. )
Howard would mentor not just Gell, but also Ed Wilson, owner of Wilson’s Holy Smoke BBQ in Fairfield and secretary of the National Barbecue Association Inc.
Purple Turtle is one of at least two outfits in Fairfield County that regularly enter such competitions, along with the Yankee BBQ Boys, which lists a New Fairfield home base. Both teams belong to the New England Barbecue Society, a Plymouth, Mass.-based organization that sponsors a barbecue “mentor” program to allow beginners to learn from smoke-seasoned veterans like Howard or Wilson.
Wilson is fresh off cooking 1.5 tons – yes, tons – of barbecue at the annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party this month in New York City. He said Gell’s and Hunter’s trial-by-fire story is not unusual in competitive rings.
“We’re all kind of in this pot together,” Wilson said. “You can tag along and get your feet wet.”
The New England competition season gets an early start at the annual Freeze Your Butt Off BBQ Competition, held at the start of March in Maynard, Mass., followed by the annual Snowshoe Challenge in Abington, Mass. at the end of the month.
Not until June do things really get cooking, however. Grillin’ on the Bay was held three weeks ago in Brooklyn, N.Y.; this past weekend, Merrimack, N.H., was host to Rock ’N RibFest and the New Hampshire state barbecue championships. Independence Day weekend, grillers will converge in Lake Placid, N.Y., for the I Love Barbeque Festival; later that month they will head to the Albany, N.Y., area for the Troy (N.Y.) Pig Out, and to New Paltz, N.Y., in August for the Hudson Valley RibFest.
At that point, a New England champion will have already been crowned at the Harpoon New England Championship, scheduled for July 25-27 in Windsor, Vt. Purple Turtle more than held its own at the 2007 Harpoon championship, placing in the top five.
High gas prices have had a perhaps unexpected impact on competitions – rather than encourage people to stay home, it has encouraged organizers to winnow down the number of competitions, which has more contestants showing up at the remaining contests.
Fuel prices are not helping things – Gell and Hunter already spend thousands of dollars annually competing – but on the bright side the competitions often award cash prizes. In taking home gold at Lake Placid’s I Love Barbeque Festival last year, Purple Turtle also took home a $1,000 grand prize as well as nearly that much more for making the medal stand in various subcategories.
The national championship in Memphis awarded $90,000 in prizes.
Gell says if there is a secret sauce to winning, it is producing high-level results week after week – and perhaps getting to know the tastes of individual judges, at least at regional contests.
“Our biggest thing is consistency – when you get the chefs who compete and the restaurant owners, they tend to be much more consistent,” she said. “Even though most of us are chili heads, you keep it on the mild side. If you cook it too hot you are going to lose.”