Tuesday, August 24, 2010 

End of Season Wrap-up

This weekend we finished the last of our major events by rocking out 20 different appetizers (over 6 hours) plus three briskets, three butts and a case of ribs for hungry family and friends at the 20th annual St. Divots 7 Fires Golf Tournament. It was a great experience, although I missed the party part of the event by passing out early on Saturday night. Good to know we can still rock the house even when half of the team is recovering from walking pneumonia!

Now is the time when I reflect on this season’s barbecue and look forward to next year’s competitions. All in all, I have to say it was one of our roughest seasons yet. After coming off our success at Harpoon in 2009, I anticipated we’d only move up. I was wrong. We fell victim to the biggest hurdle in competition barbecue – consistency. Our scores were up and down in each competition. In Merrimack, I had temperature probe issues and over-cooked some things. At Harpoon, our ribs and brisket were ok (10th in brisket); but not exceptional. In Maine, our ribs and brisket were mediocre, but we did better in chicken and pork than we’ve done in ages. To say we were up and down was an understatement.

Despite mediocre showings in our barbecue events, the bright light for team Howling Hog this season was found in the team as a whole. We’ve added new team members, long-time supporter Rob Hurley and his wife Tara Race. Rob has been a student of his Weber for years and adds a wonderful level of meticulousness and obsession to the grilling component of what we do. Rob’s first competition netted us our best trophy of the season with a first place in Flank Steak at the Merrimack grilling event. Between Rob’s cooking method and my spice and sauce recipe, we really had a winning combination. In Maine, Rob, Tara, Jenn and I were able to brainstorm collectively on how to cook our Iron Chef entry (the secret ingredient was lobster) in a way that gave us an 8th place rank out of the 30 or so teams who competed.

As a team, we’ve grown more cohesive whether it’s Rob and Tara, or Hank, Mame and Pete who are joining for an event. Set up, strike-down, and vending were smoother this season than they’ve ever been. To me, that’s probably our biggest success as a team. But, the truth is that the best of our season didn’t lie in our competitions, but in the friendships that continue to grow between us and folks from Feeding Friendz and Boneyard Smokers. During each of the three events we competed in this summer we had pot-luck dinners with our buddies. We’ve met family members, we’ve tossed back some brews and we’ve had no small amount of good times with these folks! This is the best part of what we do. And, of course, we’ve celebrated our successes. Feeding Freindz has moved into a new level of cooking this season. Their hard work and dedication brought them the finest of awards with Grand Champion trophies at Harpoon for both Grilling and Barbecue. As I write this, they have reported back from Dover, Delaware coming in 3rd overall among a group of over 80 teams! And our good friends at Boneyard Smokers have kicked up their game as well, pulling calls all summer in Ribs, plus some chicken and brisket in there as well.

I will say that this summer’s barbecue performance wasn’t a total loss for me as Pitmaster. I learned some good stuff both in competition and out of it. The value of good quality meat has grown clearer and clearer. When we switched chicken vendors for Maine and went back to sticking closer to IQue’s chicken method, we placed 13th – the best score in chicken we’ve had in four years. I learned that the pork coming out of Canada is substantially leaner than the pork produced in the US, and it’s important to pay attention to that – leaner means dryer – dryer is bad. I finally think I’ve reached a point with pork butt where I can put up good numbers – 9th place in Maine is the highest score I’ve gotten since Hogstock in 2007 (and I’m pretty well convinced that was a fluke). We’ve confirmed that the way we’re doing our chicken is working. At Harpoon, I confirmed that even with a slightly overcooked brisket, my recipe is still good (10th overall in Brisket). So, the truth is that we’re still on track.

As I look back on the summer and consider the progress of Howling Hog, I can’t lie that I’m disappointed with how we fared in the world of barbecue. Our inconsistency in the four food groups (chicken, pork ribs, pork butt and brisket) falls squarely on my shoulders. As the guy who has taken control of all of that stuff and not relinquished it, it’s up to me to figure out how to right the ship (so to speak). Good thing there’s a long off season in front of me! I’m planning to approach practice in a much more efficient and technical way. I’ve tried to take notes in the past, but have been a tad lazy with them. At this point, I’m not even sure if I could tell you WHERE my old notes are. Last night I put together a three-ring binder specifically for practice and I’m committed to keeping detailed notes. I’m going to try my best to practice something every month through the off-season, which I hope will get me over the consistency hump.

And there’s going to be a concerted effort to invest more in the team this off-season, too. I’m hoping that with a bunch of overtime at work, I can pull together enough money to buy us a 5’X8’ box trailer that can be towed behind my car. If we could lose the need to constantly borrow transportation, it would be a huge improvement for us. Plus, we can sleep in a trailer! There are other things to buy as well, a new camp stove, cambro units, better tables, etc. There’s always something we can buy to make things better.

With the end of each season, I have to remind myself that even though we’ve now been doing this for six years, we’re still just a fledgling team. While other teams do 6-10 competitions a year, we don’t do more than three. To date, we’ve only competed 13 times. Some teams do 13 competitions in a year! I have to remind myself that you don’t succeed overnight, that it (like life) takes hard work and dedication. Cooking for friends and family just for the fun of it continues to keep me grounded. Competition barbecue continues to keep me focused. During this winter I’ll just keep plugging away, trying to do better, and trying to keep it all in perspective. Food is fun. Barbecue is bliss. Smoke is spectacular. Family is life and life is good.

Peace, love and barbecue to all.

Chris Sargent, Pitmaster
Howling Hog Barbecue

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 

Mainely Grillin’ & Chillin’ Barbecue Competition, Eliot, ME

Howling Hog Barbecue wrapped up our last competition for 2010 this past weekend, by participating in the “Mainely Grillin’ & Chillin’” competition in Eliot, ME. The MGC is a benefit event for the Raitt Farm museum, in Eliot, ME. It is in its infancy (this was year number two), but I have to say that Lisa Raitt and her family are doing a spectacular job! It speaks loudly to the way the teams are supported that the number of teams that participated doubled between last year and this year.

Lisa and her Dad, Husband and other family members really took the time to make sure that we (the teams) were comfortable and had all we needed to make the competition successful. My hat is off to those folks, and I guarantee that Howling Hog Barbecue will be back in Eliot next season if our schedule allows it.

The folks at the MGC got Paul Kirk aka "The Baron of Barbecue" to teach a class on Friday.

Howling Hog rolled onto the Raitt Farm *on time* at about 12:00pm on Friday! (yes, that's right folks, Howling Hog Barbecue was actually ON TIME to a competition!) Our best barbecue buddies Feeding Friendz and Boneyard Smokers had held an adjacent spot for us. With myself, Jenn, Connor and new team members Rob and Tara present, we made fast work of set up.

From left to right: Howling Hog, Feeding Friendz (with Wendy waving) and Boneyard Smokers

Flying our colors. Rob's head lurks above.

The evening on Friday was light, as the barbecue competition wasn’t until Sunday. Several weeks before we got together, I had been emailing with Wendy, Sandy and Rob about doing a potluck among the teams with a focus on celebrating Jenn’s birthday which was Friday the 6th. As is always the case when you get this group together, the food was unbelievable. Rob and I did our FPF (First Place Flank steak) from Merrimack. Wendy and Tim did their EPS (eight place shrimp) from Harpoon. Fellow Feeding Freindz teammates Becky and Andy did an unbelievably good fish chowder and Sandy and Dave from Boneyard made Jenn and I a birthday cake! The food was spectacular, to the point that even I (who doesn’t like seafood – particularly things in shells) was blown away by all of it. Despite the rockiness of our 2010 season, it has been our growing friendship with these two teams that has made it all worth it. These are good folks right here.

The evening meal and celebration was followed up by a late-night visit to Eric and Cindi from Yabba Dabba Que. During the week before the contest, Eric had announced on the New England Barbecue Society forum that he was bringing his heavy-duty gas fryer with him and everything you can think of would be fried. Jenn and I foolishly found ourselves stuffing MORE food into our mouths as Eric wowed us with deep-fried kit-kats, sausage balls, Cornish game hens, rolos and garlic. I have to say that the deep fried garlic was WAY cool.

The MGC offered Howling Hog Barbecue some unique competitive opportunities that we’ve never had before in the grilling competition on Saturday. For our pleasure there were three opportunities to compete: People’s Choice Wings, Iron Chef (sponsored by J.P’s Shellfish) and Dessert (sponsored by Wyman’s Blueberries). Originally, I had only signed up for the Wings and Dessert competition out of fear of shellfish – I never cook the stuff – like EVER. I live in rural area of a state that has no ocean, and good shellfish is awfully hard to find around here. But, Jenn took me to task for not being willing to do it, and I emailed the Raitts to have them add me to the list.

The wing competition was unusual in that the teams were broken into three groups, each with different turn-in times. Attendees of the event bought tickets to be judges (allowing them to sample the wings), and the winner of each group then participated in a head-to-head wing competition to determine who had the best wings. Sandy and Dave from Boneyard Smokers made it into the finals but didn’t get called as the winner.

Everyone meet Nathan. He met a fiery death, but was well cooked.

The Iron Chef category was number two for the day. Rob, Jenn, Tara and I had been brainstorming about how to handle the multitude of shellfish offered by J.P’s. Rob came up with a maple-chipotle glaze that he thought would work with a couple of different kinds of shellfish. Out of the potential types, we were hoping that neither would be oysters or lobster. When the reveal of the ingredient came (two hours before turn-in time), the result was indeed lobster! When Jenn and Rob returned with our lobster (dubbed “Nathan” by Tara), the team rallied around Rob’s recipe and offered additional ideas to make it work with lobster. In the end we served up grilled lobster on fresh pasta with a maple-chipotle cream sauce. Out of the 33 teams that participated in the grilling event, our on-the-fly recipe came in 8th!

This is what Nathan looked like when done. He was apparently tasty.

For the Dessert category, the sponsor was Wyman’s, so we knew the key ingredient was going to be blueberries. Jenn had been working on a blueberry-lime tiramisu recipe for about two months and her execution was just gorgeous. With the turn-in rules allowing any container (instead of a standard 9X9 box), she put the dessert in glasses on one of Tara’s pottery platters. The resulting dessert was both tasty and pretty and out of 33 it came in 6th!

Jenn prepares the blueberry dessert.

Ain't they pretty?

Ready for turn-in.

We got a visit from my Dad's barbershop quartet, The Four Baritones, who sang Jenn a song for her birthday!
(Dad is on the left)

Saturday evening I began my part as Pitmaster for Howling Hog Barbecue by prepping my meats for Sunday’s barbecue competition. I had tried a new butcher out of Rutland in an effort to get some better quality meat than I had been getting. Unfortunately, this decision did not prove to be wise as the guy from Simply Meats gave me a package of butts that was simply rancid. When I had trimmed them before coming over to the competition I was a little concerned by the smell (some funkiness isn’t unusual when you take meat out of cryovac, but it usually dissipates after you rinse it). When I pulled the trimmed butts out of the cooler, they had started turning GREEN. Green, in general, is not a color you want associated with meat. So, a mad dash to a nearby Hannaford’s was made. Fortunately for us, they had two butts that would work for what we were trying to do.

Lost in a haze of woodsmoke.

The cook overnight went well, although the small size of the butts and the briskets made things a bit of a struggle. After Harpoon we had decided to get our chicken from Misty Knoll, because they offer better quality than what we had been getting. The chicken and ribs went on in the AM on Sunday. Our turn-in were pretty good, in general. We were happy with the chicken, the ribs were only ok, the butt looked great and the brisket appeared solid. In the end, we had a mixed bag of results. Our two weakest categories (chicken and pork butt) were our leaders at 13th and 9th place respectively. Butt has been a thorn in my side for years, so I was quite thrilled with such a high placement out of the 44 teams competing in the barbecue competition. Our ribs and brisket, however, pretty much tanked. I learned some good stuff with both, though, so I can’t call it a total loss.

After turn-ins, we broke our gear down with lightning speed thanks to the help of our newest teammates. By the end of the day, our friends had come away with several calls including a second place ribs trophy for Boneyard Smokers! Feeding Freindz was consistent, coming in at 9th overall. Our results were pretty representative of our season on the whole – inconsistent. But, as always, we walked away with some new knowledge on how to approach what we do and we saw improvement in our weakest categories. On Sunday evening we packed the trailer up and headed north to my Dad’s house in Auburn, ME where a shower and a real bed awaited us.

Almost packed up. I think our neighbors were entertained by all of our work!

Special thanks to Rob and Tara who joined us as a couple for the first time at a competition. They were lots and lots of help, and Rob took a number of these pictures. Thanks, guys!



I've not been posting to this blog in a great while. This is mostly due to the fact that I've been doing much more with Facebook, and double posting things takes up too much time. But, I think I've figured out how to have this blog posted to the Howling Hog Barbecue Facebook page, so I can put information up here and have it automatically put on FB.

If this works, you can expect to see a few updates in the next day or so!