Tuesday, July 25, 2006 

Old Bull's Observations from the Harpoon

Driving down the interstate to the sixth annual Harpoon Barbeque competition (Harpoon is a Vermont brewery and the competition doubles as the New England Championships, a qualifier for national competition) in a driving rainstorm with my brother in law's grill strapped to the back of the pick-up I was smiling to myself. "I can't see a gawd-danged thing," I thought as a tractor trailer passed. "I really ought to pull over." But, of course I didn't. The rain was among the heaviest I have ever driven in, but it had ebbs and flows like nature tends to do. It was more of a flow than an ebb when I stopped at my nephew's to raid his heating wood pile. I realized, too late, I should have taken off my shirt to stash those pieces of wood into the crevasses of the pick-up load. I was also beginning to realize that I had concentrated on what I needed to cook with but paid very little attention to what I needed to keep myself comfortable. I had packed a handful of clothing, but was certainly under prepared, particularly in footwear. At this point, however, these were only fleeting thoughts. Little did I realize I had already made three critical cooking mistakes. More would follow.

Arriving at the festival site, I was happy to see my Howling Hog teammates right at the entrance; first booth. And they were already pretty well set-up. I backed the truck right in and we started off-loading the grill, (bringing our total to three) a trio of folding tables and the wood. Throughout that process the pit rigs were rolling in: Big rigs; big pits. Pull behind pits. Drivable pits. Well decorated pits. Sponsored pits. It left an impression.

We attended the competitors meeting, got fed the competitors meal, and started the fires. Kick-off. Now the real rain didn't start coming on for quite a while. The Head Hog went down for a nap about - oh I dunno, maybe two am. I hung on until 3:30. And I was worried my rib fire would still be too hot to cook on at dawn's early light. Head Hog got up about a half hour after I went down, which was handy for the marinade flipping which was required. The marinade, by the way, was another mistake. As had been grabbing the heating wood, which was neither quality cooking wood, nor the right size to actually fit into the grill, which wasn't mine in the first place. By 5am, when I got up for good, with roughly 40 minutes of restless sleep, my raging fire was reduced to some decent embers, well below the grate. I could not get another piece of wood to actually rest on the embers. The fire never really did burn with any predictability. And I have never marinaded my ribs before. The game was going badly; At least on my end.

The Head Hog was pretty happy with what he had going. All his fancy temperature thingies were saying the temp had been good all night. He had concerns, yes, but oh so minor when compared to the ribs, which I got in the pit with what should have been an hour and a half to spare. That of course, presumes a reasonable fire, which I did not have, and being unfamiliar with the grill, controlling a difficult fire was simply beyond me. Another dropped pass. Alright, I don't want to dwell on this anymore. I've been beating myself up over the ribs enough. I've been putting it this way: they were the worst ribs I've pulled off a fire in 15 years. We managed to dress 'em up enough to avoid last place. And I certainly wouldn't have expected them to be any better than that. They weren't. Head Hog got 13th in brisket, up from dead last a season ago. Out of 42 teams, the improvement is remarkable, and considering it was just the fifth time he's used his new competition level apparatus it was a particularly good showing. The rains started coming in with regularity to coincide with the opening of the festival to the public. No casual barbeque fan would be coming. Fortunately, there are at least 2,000 more than casual fans, and they slogged in with brightly colored umbrellas and stayed. Covering their beer to prevent dilution and happily finding enough cover to keep the sauce from washing off their ribs.

The rain had peaked during the Saturday evening awards presentation. The bagpipe players had a struggle keeping water from accumulating down their pipes, but it really just made the sound a little more raspy. Our ladies were ankle deep in mud at the vending table and there was whitewater in the little riverettes which coursed across the floor of our booth. It was ugly. My ribs didn't get served to anybody. I was glad to throw them onto an open fire late in the evening and watch them flare up. The process actually enhanced them a great deal, and I ate quite a few that night while consuming way too much sponsor product. Fortunately, they brought us another case of the oatmeal stout about 2am.

Sunday the crowds came in, although I have no doubt Saturday is normally the key day of the event in a non-weather challenged day. It was what they call "sizzler" day, or grilling competition as opposed to the smoking competition. It's not really what the big guys are all about, though some of the restaurant sponsored teams get after it pretty good. I was in charge of the wings and am proud to say earned the team its first ribbon, scoring 10th in the field of 40 or so (I'm assuming most of the teams entered every category). Now I've been cooking wings since the early 70's, since I moved from the Buffalo area and couldn't get a reasonable facsimile of a wing. I know what a wing is suppose to taste like. I saw room for improvement in them. This is good. I have a base line from which to work... unlike the ribs.

That's the short of it. I returned home utterly exhausted, suitably humbled and pissed enough to want to cook ribs at least once a week for the next year.

Monday, July 24, 2006 

The Harpoon Championships of New England Barbecue 2006

Well, it’s over. And all I have to say is “WHEW”! And not a little bit of “WHO-HOO!”

This year’s Harpoon Championships of New England Barbeque was an exceptional experience. For Howling Hog BBQ it was a weekend of great improvement, water, mud, beer and our first award!


Where to begin? Well, how about the beginning? The “first team” of Howling Hog BBQ (I and my young son) pulled into Harpoon on Friday at 11:15. I admit that I’m a bit confused about exactly when check in is supposed to start, the rules say 12:00 but the dang place was packed when we got there.

However, for us, this wasn’t a bad thing. Last year we were the first booth on the right as you enter the site and we got that spot again. The location of our booth probably isn’t the best for selling meat, as people want to come in and check stuff out before they buy. But we do more than just meat, and as a result, the location benefits us greatly.

This year, part of our success was marked by the fact that I had nearly a full team on hand by the afternoon. Farmer Girl followed her boys shortly after we arrived and we were able to get the tents up and our gear out of the truck by noon. A quick shout-out to Grampy for loaning us his F-250, couldn’t have done this without him! Old Bull and the Mamer arrived in the afternoon after getting a tire repaired on their truck.

Our kitchen was much improved over last season. We’ve invested in equipment and infrastructure (tables, camp kitchen, etc.). We were also MUCH more organized this time around. My competition checklist was circulated through the team members at the beginning of the week, so we had time enough to give it thought and pull anything I missed into the list.

One of the best improvements of our set up was the Cabella’s “camper kitchen” that Farmer Girl got me for Christmas. We liked it so much that we’ve decided we’re going to get another one!

Cooking began in earnest in the evening, of course.

One of the best things about this competition is the friendship and camaraderie. Our neighbors from last season, Feeding Freindz were at Harpoon again this year and it was just great to see them. Rick and D.J. from Seabrisket, who sold me my new baby (the Backwoods Smoker) were present and accounted for.

At about one in the morning on Saturday we were visited by one of the fine fellas from Lunchmeat (who did well in the competition as usual) who came bearing a massive jar of spiked cherries. He and I had a good talk about our mutual interest in Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band.


I’m betting I only got about four hours of sleep on Friday night, in two-hour bursts. This was probably my 5th time doing a full cook on the Backwoods and I’m still trying to get used to it.

The morning was a hustle and bustle, particularly for Farmer Girl and her aunt, Mamer. They were in charge of Vending and did a fantastic job getting our booth set up to look good and handling our customers. This was one of our biggest areas of improvement for the season. The Old Bull and I had worked through the night, particularly on the ribs. My Brisket was done by 10:00, wrapped and set in the hot cooler. The chicken went on at around 9:00, I think.

The weather was not our friend at Harpoon this year. When a tropical storm formed off the coast earlier in the week, I figured it didn’t bode well for our fine event. The forecast went to hell as we got closer to the start. On Saturday, it absolutely dumped. One of my friends from nearby Hartland said that he got more than two inches of rain on Saturday! We were all SOME wet. But not even the grinch could stop barbecue from coming! A dedicated group of folks STILL came out to enjoy the food and the excellent music. And the dedicated competitors kept on smokin’.

At 12:00, I submitted my chicken, and considering that I find it the least interesting meat to compete with, it came out darned well.

At 12:30 the ribs were submitted. No doubt, they were our worst submission, which was due to the classic mistake of doing everything differently than you usually do at home. I had given the ribs over to the old bull, whose ribs have always been better than mine. But, he was using a foreign grill, a rib rack, some odd ribs, and even some mixed woods. That won’t happen again, I’m sure. I bet you next time we compete he’s coming with his own grill, his own wood and his own method of doing them. Go Old Bull!

At 1:00 I pulled my pork. I felt that the product I sent in was quite good and I just loved the sweet and vinegar mustard sauce I put on it.

At 1:30, my most improved product went into the judges. I have worked on my brisket all year, to the point that everyone in my household has been going “brisket again?” But, as you’ll find out later, the improvement is marked.

Needless to say, as soon as the brisket was off to the judges, we hit the beer tent. Harpoon treats its barbecuer’s quite well. I’d be hard pressed to say that we “wanted for beer” at any point this weekend!

The contest results were announced at 4:00.

The usual suspects were dominant, if you’d like to see the results, then you should head on over to the New England BBQ Society’s web site and check them out.

Our Results

I’m pleased to say that we saw improvement in all categories! We placed 21st in Chicken, 40th in Ribs (yes, they were WORSE last year), 34th in Pork Shoulder and best of all for me – 13th in Brisket! My brisket was dead last last year.

The chicken was a surprise. I basically went for red rub and red sauce and tried to make it look pretty. Clearly that worked for me. The poor showing in ribs was no surprise. They’ll be better next year, no doubt. The Pork Shoulder showing was frustrating because I felt it was pretty darned good. Obviously, I need to go back and look at what I’ve been doing, read some books about it and start practicing heavily to improve on my scores. Without a doubt, my biggest personal success was the brisket. To jump from last to three places below 10th was huge for me. I worked doggedly on that gnarly cut of meat and I feel it really worked out.

Why we do this

This event isn’t just about the competition. It’s about a bunch of good folks getting together to do something they love. In my case, it’s also about family. Having my wife, son, aunt and uncle all there to participate and loving it as much as I do makes this such a special event. So, a thanks from this Howlin’ Hog to Farmer Girl, The Boy, Old Bull and Mamer for giving it there all and being ready for more!

Well folks, it’s getting late, I’m still pretty tired, and so I’ll provide you with the good news from Sunday’s Summer Sizzler contest tomorrow!

Keep Smokin’


One more thing: There's a great article in The Valley News, our local paper about the competition and Howling Hog BBQ gets a nod! Check it out here.

Thursday, July 20, 2006 

The countdown

Well Folks, it's just one more day until the cooking begins at the Harpoon Championships of New England Barbecue!

My team has been fully organized, my trucking arranged and the pack list organized. As we speak, Farmer Girl is baking for her end of the event, the vending. Old Bull and the Mamer are coming down from up north to join us and The Brewer will be arriving on Saturday morning to pitch in. Regrettably, The Chef had to bail on this year's event because his wife had a heart attack last friday. Fortunately, she survived and is out of the hospital. Clearly it's time for two of my favorite people to knock off the smoking! Our best to them as she heals up and gets back into action!

The truck is getting packed tonight, the last minute sauces and rubs are being pulled together and the meat gets picked up tomorrow morning. Then we're off to Windsor to get a booth, load in and set up!

I'll have pictures and comments for ya'll on Monday, which I sensibly took off from work this year. Wish us luck!



Wednesday, July 05, 2006 

And so it begins

It's been a busy few weeks and all signs point to things getting busier before the end of the month. I've been a bit edgy lately and only just realized what my deal was - I'm getting nervous about the Barbecue Competition!

The big event is just over two weeks away and there's a lot to think about. And the thing is - it's pretty much my deal. To be sure, I've got a team of friends and family who'll be there to give me a hand, but in the end - it's all up to me. This is my food, my contest and thusly my show to run.

I've started to buy stuff for the event. Next week I'm ordering all of my meat, and as usual I'm not quite sure how it's going to get paid for! I've replaced our broken tents, purchased storage containers, buss bins and tools for the contest. The weekend before the event I'll be pulling together all of my spice rubs (I'll be selling them at the site as well) and sauces. Plus, of course, I'll be trying to get one final nighttime practice run in.

This is my second year in the contest. I have a much better feel for what's expected of me and what the pace will be like. I'm pretty confident that what I produce will put me somewhere in the middle of the pack, which would be a great improvement over second-to-last. But, I'm nervous about it nonetheless.

It's funny but I don't remember being this nervous last year. This is probably because I didn't know what to expect. This year I do, and I think I'm ready, but there are a million things to consider and I'm responsible for almost all of them. Plus, I need to be prepared to tell my teammates what I need from them. Lots to do. Not much time. But, I think I'm well on my way and I'm looking forward to it. I know my food is better than last year. Now all I can do is organize, prepare and practice. The rest of it will fall into place.