Kansas City, Mo.
Jim Belt is working the 15-pound chunk of beef brisket with the intensity and dexterity of Michelangelo sculpting the Pieta. First he delicately carves it into six long slices.
Then he swabs each one with homemade barbecue sauce (secret ingredient: grape jelly) before laying the pieces gently in a Styrofoam box.
Next, team member Barb Frank primps the meat as if it’s a beauty contestant. She fluffs the bed of lettuce it sits on. She adorns the slices with florets of parsley. She dabs away stray drops of sauce. “Four minutes!” Charlie Frank, her husband, barks out.
That’s how long the members of Mad Hogs and an Englishman – a good name for a rock band, but it isn’t – have until Charlie, the designated runner, must spirit their entry over to the judging tables for the 1:30 p.m. turn-in. (Charlie timed the walk the day before – three and a half minutes.) Jim gives the meat one final misting with water, making it glisten. Then the Styrofoam box is laid in an insulated carrying container, and Charlie darts off, joining a rivulet of runners flowing into the judging area.
Similar scenes will play out here all afternoon at what is officially the American Royal Barbecue, but unofficially is the holy grail of grilling competitions, the mecca of seared meat, the Royal Ballet of ribs.
This year, nearly 500 teams from across the country converged on the site of the old Kansas City stockyards to compete for $100,000 in prizes and the glory of taking home a ribbon from what’s become the most prestigious barbecue contest in the world. At least one team from Canada – BBQ Bob and the “Eh” Team,” from Whistler – made the trip.
Teams arrived on a recent Thursday and Friday in mobile homes, pickups laden with smokers, cord wood (pecan, hickory, and wild cherry are popular), charcoal briquettes, hay bales (to make rustic borders around their cooking areas), awnings, coolers, canopies, outdoor furniture of every description, sound systems, satellite TVs, outdoor lights, and other accoutrements indispensable – and probably dispensable – to cooking and comfort. By Saturday, with live country music blaring, smoke billowing, and thousands of spectators milling about the grounds, the scene resembled a neo Woodstock, but with less mud and better food.
Almost as important as a smoker and a cooler full of meat, barbecue teams need clever names: Mason-Dixon Swine; Porkrastination; Chix, Swine & Bovine, BBQ; Squeal of Approval; the Hog Whisperers; Pig Newton – there’s no end of porcine puns on display.
The contest took place over two days. Saturday was the Invitational (the “World Series of Barbecue”), open only to winners of sanctioned competitions in the past year – 106 teams in all. Sunday was the Open Competition, for any team with an entry fee.
Groups compete in four basic meat categories: beef brisket, ribs, chicken, and pork. Secondary categories include vegetables (yes, they have a few of those), beans, potatoes, sausage, and even desserts.
Kids wield tongs and spice rubs as well. Children ages 6 to 10 square off to see who can produce the best hamburger, while older kids, ages 11 to 15, match chicken recipes.
In all, it takes 500 judges to separate the gristle from the blue-ribbon entries.
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For Mad Hogs and an Englishman (Charlie hails from Yorkshire), this is their fifth time participating in the American Royal. They compete in four or five other contests every year.
By now, the team has honed its system. Barb cooks the chicken and pork. Jim handles the ribs, brisket, and sausage. This year, Barb’s son-in-law, Scott Craft, prepares the “sides.”
Charlie’s role is primarily support services: setting up, cleaning up, running the entries to the judges, and, most important, watching the clock as turn-in times approach.
“That’s when I become the taskmaster,” he says.
The team has enjoyed a measure of success in the past. They’ve won top prizes in smaller contests in the region and even took 11th in ribs at the American Royal in 2006.
In the world of barbecuing, the watchwords are “low” and “slow.” Five pounds of pork ribs smoked at 250 degrees F. can take eight to 10 hours. Many cook their beef brisket for 12 hours or longer. Jim started his brisket at 10 p.m. Saturday night and by 9 a.m. Sunday it was done. Barb’s pork cooked overnight as well. Both have meat thermometers attached to alarms, which beep if the smoker temperature gets too high or too low.
Their approach is one of consistency: They buy the meat at the same supplier, prepare it the same way, let it cook to the same temperature. “That way, the only variable is the judging,” says Jim. “That’s something we have no control over.”
There is, of course, one other variable – the vaunted sauce. The Royal American attracts a lot of big names in the barbecue world, people who write books, appear on TV, and teach classes. Thus it would take a CIA code cracker or the threat of water boarding to get many chefs here to give up their recipes. People joke about bugging RVs or taking out binoculars when certain teams are prepping their meat.
The Hogs team isn’t quite as John le Carrésque. Barb admits to using a commercial sauce, Blues Hog, on her meat, cut down with apple juice. For the brisket, Jim makes his own sauce with, he says in the right conspiratorial tone and a furtive glance over his shoulder, “secret herbs and spices.”
To improve their chances with the judges, the team cooks several pieces of each meat, since every cut tastes differently. This year the team grilled six slabs of ribs, four pork butts, and two 15-pound briskets. Invited to be part of the taste-testing, I can confirm that the two briskets did, indeed, have slightly different flavors. (Someone had to fact check this article.)
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By 5 p.m. Sunday, the last entries have been judged and many teams have left, even before the results are announced. Four Hogs and an Englishman sticks around, waiting in the Hale Arena – anxiously – like everyone else. The trophies sit propped on a table. The judges begin reading names – alas, the Hogs aren’t called.
They check the tally sheet. They placed 98th overall out of a field of 475, just shy of the top 20 percent, a respectable finish. Their best single entry was brisket, which captured 85th place. “It’s not bad,” Barb says. “We thought we were going to do a little better, but we always think we’re going to do a little better. We had fun.”
The American Royal Barbecue is the last competition of the season. Mad Hogs and an Englishman will pack up the smoker until next spring. While they don’t ordinarily make big changes in the way they prepare their entries, the off-season does give them a chance to experiment. Barb, in particular, wants to fine-tune the rub on her pork. Last year, she was perfecting her chicken recipe. So her family ate thighs and drumsticks all winter.
Now, she says, the family will be eating a lot of pork. Would that we all had to make such a big sacrifice!