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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.


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