Local competitors strut stuff in cooking contest
Vinegar versus tomato. Memphis versus Lexington. Red slaw versus white. Y’all know what I’m talking about. It’s divisive. It’s delectable. It’s barbecue.
This weekend, competitors travelled to Lincolnton to participate in the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) sanctioned competition at Hog Happenin’.
According to the event’s website, “the event was the first to ‘combine the animal with the mechanical,’” and “the 2001 event was the winner of the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s award for Best Downtown Special Event in North Carolina.”
Not only could you purchase barbecue to eat at this event, you could taste from some of the best in the region, ranging from amateurs whose gear fit in a pickup bed to pros rolling in with modified trailers and crafted double-stack cookers. No matter the equipment, all teams have the same goal — to lift the ancient practice of wood-fired cooking to an art.
The KCBS sanctions hundreds of contests per year. Hog Happenin’ is a KCBS Traditional Sanctioned Contest. In this type of sanctioning, competitors are required to cook four meats: chicken, pork ribs, pork butt, and brisket. The cooking source is limited to wood, wood pellets, or charcoal. In addition to the four main categories, there are optional Anything Butt and Dessert competitions, judged Friday night by local dignitaries. Teams that chose to enter this portion of the competition had the opportunity to get creative with alternate proteins like seafood, or riff on one of the four main meats outside of what KCBS considers a pure version of the four main categories.
Entries are judged on appearance, tenderness and taste. Gordon Hubbell is a KCBS Master Certified judge and writer who lives in Lincolnton. He participated in Hog Happenin’ as a member of the Laughing Ladies team and didn’t participate in judging.
“Guidelines are not so tight that the cooks can’t be creative,” he said. “I think that’s one of the best things about the KCBS rules, is that they’re definitional, but not constrictive. So that you have something to aim for, but you’re not put in a box.” When judging, Hubbell looks for balance.
“Balance is that combination of things between the meat, the sauce, your cooking method and any other spicing, like rubs and injections that add together to create something in the whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts,” he said.
The contestants set up downtown at 4 p.m. on Friday and immediately began preparation. The first meat to go on the cooker was brisket, which can take up to 15 hours. Later in the evening, the pork butt went on. Chicken and ribs went on Saturday morning. Sleep is not a priority. The meat required attention through the night. The temperature must be monitored — too much heat can result in tough meat. Each team has its own technique. The sauces, injections and rubs are hand-blended and vary between types of meats. As long as they stick to wood, teams can get creative with their processes. For example, Sultans of Swine, from Charlotte, soak Hickory chips in homemade brown beer to add some sweetness.
This was Charles Wilson’s first time competing at Hog Happenin’, but he is no stranger to Lincolnton. A 1983 graduate of Lincolnton High School, Wilson spent many years in the Pacific Northwest and is in the process of moving back here with his family, a return to his vinegar-based roots. “Out there in the Northwest its just sweet, sweet, sweet,” he said. “I went out there and cooked like I normally cook and I bombed because it wasn’t sweet enough. So I had to adjust to them. My wife made me adjust to them. I said ‘No, barbecue is not suppose to taste like that.’ I haven’t gotten a Grand Champion yet, but have placed in all my categories.”
Wilson has competed in around 30 competitions and has a line of rubs called C-Dub’s BBQ Rub and was on the third season of the TLC show BBQ Pitmasters.
Wilson competes under the name C-Dubs Corruptions and ribs are his specialty. Friends Wayne Brown and Bill Sherwood joined him in competition.
The barbecue mantra is “low and slow.” Slow cooking requires patience and practice. Patience is not one of Jason Bullard’s strong points. On a cold November day, Bullard, a native of Hawaii, stopped into Race City BBQ and Grill in Denver. He had the barbecue and it tasted so distinct to him that he asked the owner, G.T. Swindell, if he had ever competed.
After Bullard’s encouragement, Swindell entered Hog Happenin’ as a first-time amateur. Swindell competed with Bullard and Eric Strouse under the name Race City BBQ. Their approach is to keep it simple and relaxed.
“I am chill,” Swindell said. “I just know. I smell it.”
“He uses The Force,” Bullard says.
Competition barbecue isn’t just about cooking and winning. It’s about camaraderie. Bullard appreciates the culture.
“I enjoy the time it takes,” he said. “You don’t do this over hamburgers. Hotdogs are on the grill and off the grill. With this you’re forced to take your time and I’m a very impatient, rushing person. This is forced relaxation.”
Hog Happenin’ is a great opportunity for local barbecue enthusiasts to try their hand at competing. The Lincolnton-based Wood-hoss BBQ team is a family affair. Patriarch Jack Woodward cooks with his daughter and son-in-law, Jenn and Paul Cendejas, and this is their first time at Hog Happenin’ as professionals. In 2013, they placed fourth overall as amateurs. Even the Cendejas children get in on the action with their own mini cookers.
“It’s all in the preparation of the meat,” Woodward said. “You have to trim the fat off and think about injections or marinades, depending on the meat.”
Over $8,350 in prize money was awarded to the winners in each of the four categories, and a Grand Champion and Reserve Grand champion were named. KCBS employs double-blind judging. Competitors are provided with a numbered, white styrofoam box. At the turn-in table, organizers cover the original number with a new one before it reaches the judges. After the results are released, the judges can only guess if any winner was their favorite.
Denver-based Bayou Pork Smokers placed fourth overall, the highest of any Lincoln County professional team. Charlie Wilson and his C-Dubs Corruption crew took seventh with their ribs. Amateur Charlie Crumb’s chicken did place high, coming in at fourth, but the category was taken by another local team of amateurs, the Casual Smokers. Overall, Crumb’s team placed third of the 10 amateur teams with top-four finishes in three of four categories.
The man to beat on the professional side was the returning Grand Champion, Jerry Stephenson, of Redneck Scientific from Clayton. After the meat was tasted and scores tallied, he walked away with the honor again. After winning, Stephenson complemented Scott Adams of Sauced! BBQ Team from Charlotte, pointing out that the team received a perfect score in chicken, the only perfect score in North Carolina that Stephenson can remember.
“Contests like this offer an opportunity for anyone to compete, having a back yard side and a professional side,” Stephenson said. “It’s a family atmosphere, a more social thing. The pressure is really not so much on competing sometimes, but just on relaxing and having a good time.”
At the Race City BBQ tent, Swindell and Bullard felt good about their first time at competition. They placed sixth overall in amateur competition. They felt the best about their brisket, which took fourth place.
“Competition cooking is not restaurant cooking,” Bullard said. “It isn’t the same thing. We had a good time. It was cool to get sixth overall. We thought our neighbors were better than us, but we beat them by a fraction.”