Competition barbecue, testing man's primal abilities to make fire and cook meat, returned Saturday to downtown Bel Air, with 57 teams of passionate chefs smoking up beef, chicken and pork for more than 80 judges who took an oath to uphold "excellence in barbecue and the American way of life."
In the thick of the 14th annual Maryland State Barbecue Bash was George Hensler and his award-winning Harford County team, Who Are Those Guys?
Hensler, along with teammates Al Smith and Bobby Zengel, have been on the barbecue circuit for several years now. They know the routine: Chicken, spare ribs, pulled pork and beef brisket barbecued, hopefully to succulent perfection, for several hours in charcoal-fired smokers, then presented in that order over the course of two hours to judges certified by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, the competition's sanctioning body.
Timing is everything.
But so is cooking temperature, the quality of the meat, the seasoning and the sauce. So is the fuel — Hensler uses lump hardwood charcoal and wood from pecan trees — and so is the final presentation to judges. "It's all important," Hensler said. "People don't realize how involved this is. There's a lot of attention to detail."
For Saturday's cookoff, Hensler's team set up their tent Friday morning in what soon became a smoky tent-and-RV village on a parking lot behind Bond Street. They unpacked the team trailer: a 350-pound, cabinet-style Backwoods Smoker, a smaller Caldera Tallboy smoker, two BBQ Guru temperature monitors, a propane stove, four preparation tables, pots, coolers, knives, sauces, spice rubs, gloves, cutting boards, plenty of paper towels, and one ceramic pig.
Also: cots and a zero-gravity chair for sleeping overnight.
"I put my pork butt in the smoker around 2 a.m.," Hensler explained. "The ribs went in at 5:30."
The last meat to hit the grill, but the first to be judged, was chicken. Who Are Those Guys? and most other teams chose to barbecue chicken thighs, and their presentations to judges were remarkably uniform in shape and size.
"I remove the skins, then remove the fat underneath the skin, then wrap the thighs in the skins," explained Bill Lottes of Aberdeen, as he watched the temperature on his Primo ceramic smoker. Lottes' team, the R&B BBQ Gang, consisted of his son, Clayton; his wife, Kathleen; his grandson, Shawn Wall; and next-door neighbor in Aberdeen, Ralph DeBonis.
A retired Navy veteran, Lottes is a light traveler on the barbecue circuit, doing two or three competitions a year.
While there's money to be won (a total of $13,000 in prizes at the Bel Air contest), for men like Lottes and Hensler, the challenge is getting all factors just right — and your ribs or brisket perfectly timed for the midday judging.
Each team's entries are scored by six judges. That means, for each team, only six of their chicken thighs go to a judging table.
"I cook 14 thighs in order to send the best six to the judges," says Lottes. "I cook 18 pounds of [shoulder] to send 12 ounces of pulled pork to the judges, 13 pounds of brisket to get six good slices, and three racks of ribs — that's 39 ribs — to get six good ones for the judges."
Who Are Those Guys? presented each of their entries on a bed of fresh, curly parsley inside a white, plastic foam box marked with a number. Hensler, who has written two books on competition barbecue and blogs about it, knows the rules — judges are told to watch out for "illegal garnish" — and he knows what's expected. So he used cotton-tipped swabs to mop up small drops of sauce from the edges of each foam box; he gave his chicken thighs a light spray of apple juice to make them shine.
His team did not win in any of the Bash's categories. (The grand champion was Team Meat Coma of White Marsh, and runner-up was 3Eyz BBQ from Owings Mills.) But Who Are Those Guys? already have their trailer packed for the next stop on the circuit: the Pennsylvania state championship in New Holland Aug. 22.
"I've met some really great people through barbecue," Hensler said. "It's a contest, yes, but it's like a big backyard party. … And I like cooking with fire."