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A coast-to-coast search for monster clams, juicy pork ribs and the origins of the whoopie pie Pg. 52


The South’s battle-hardened pit masters will stop at nothing to take top honors. Welcome to the authentic, obsessive— and, yes, mouthwatering—world of food competitions.


AM NO STRANGER TO COMPETITION. Even so, I don’t have a display case of towering trophies and blue ribbons. As Liza Minnelli famously sang in Cabaret, “Everybody loves a winner, so nobody loves me.” For years, my parents dragged me from Little League to floor hockey. I was always the last kid picked on the last-place team. At first, I blamed it on my left-handedness (my coaches couldn’t cope with my “special condition”), but bouts in swimming, skiing and gymnastics proved me better equipped to stare at the podium than stand on it. Adulthood hasn’t proven much better. I quit a couple of desk jobs (where I found myself losing the battle to stay awake) and went to culinary school. I figured at the very least I could practice Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Now my kitchen is my personal battleground. I cheer at

the walls over a loaf of crusty homemade bread. I sulk, defeated, when my duck breast sticks to the pan. But even a middling old boxer has a hard time hanging up the gloves, and wants to get back in the ring to set the record straight. So I’ve come to Charlotte, NC, to the Time Warner Cable BBQ & Blues to see if I can’t vicariously crack a lifetime of losing streaks and last place Little League teams with a perfectly cooked slab of ribs. The competition, which has drawn more than 100 teams of professional pit masters and amateur backyard grillers, is part of the Memphis BBQ Network (MBN)—a leading sanctioned body of barbecue contests. I crash the mandatory pre-competition meeting to get the lowdown and try to pinpoint who might take top honors, which includes $7,500, a massive trophy and, most importantly, bragging rights. Team leaders file into a massive multi-purpose venue that will be

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overrun with thousands of barbecue fans in just a few hours. It is on this soundstage that teams will drop off their blind tasting submissions, like offerings to Zeus on Mount Olympus. With so many teams, roll call drags on for some time and is punctuated occasionally by cell phones blasting rock anthems like “Born to be Wild.” Teams mill about in small groups, chatting and laughing. At this early stage, old rivals have set aside their competitive gusto for a friendly catch-up. Janet Conn, a longtime MBN judge, sums it up well: “For one weekend a year, we’re not talking about war or the economy. We gather on an even playing field for great food and company.” hat playing field has grown exponentially over the past few years. Food competitions—from county fair pie bake-offs to big-sponsor professional blowouts—have been around for decades (the pièce de résistance of them all— the Pillsbury Bake-Off—celebrates its 45th anniversary in March), but their popularity has skyrocketed with hit network television shows. The world’s best chefs go head-tohead on shows like Top Chef and Iron Chef America, while hapless home cooks are willing to be publicly humiliated and tossed into the fire for their chance to learn knife skills from a vein-throbbing, foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay on MasterChef. According to Moira Campbell, food expert and founder of New York City’s Rum & Blackbird Food Tours, our 1950s cooking ideology—where mom puts dinner on the table—has been reinvented. “We’re living

Just like a sports fan recognizes a foul play on the field, a food competition spectator can recognize an overcooked piece of meat.
in a spectacle culture. Just like a sports fan recognizes a foul play on the field, a food competition spectator can recognize an overcooked piece of meat. It has all of the emotion and pageantry of a classic sporting event.” They earn what Campbell calls “cultural capital”—a credibility that’s based, for example, on knowing whether a dish has been steamed or cooked in an immersion circulator. Not sure I know the difference beween a pork butt and a pork shoulder, I seek out a team to take me under its wing. J.B. McCarty of BlackJack Barbecue is sitting in a lawn chair under the Big Red Rig, his team’s canopied double-decker pit. A Southern gentleman, he invites me to pull up a chair, hands me a beer and offers his take on food competitions. “These are family traditions that are passed down,” says McCarty, who also comes for the camaraderie. “One of our proudest moments was when a competing team that we had mentored took top honors and thanked us in front of a crowd of 10,000— that was almost as good as winning.” The team to beat in this competition is Jack’s Old South. Behind the leadership of barbecue guru Myron Mixon, the team has won more than 180 grand championships since its formation in 1996. Jack’s Old South is a prime example of how food competitions can enhance or even define a brand; it has its own product line, hawks sponsorship and franchise opportunities and even hosts a barbecue cooking school at Mixon’s home in Unidilla, GA. While Mixon’s team might have the best odds, I think I’ll prefer my traditional underdog role, so I continue searching for a less experienced team with some fire in its belly. Wandering the grounds, I notice a small offset cooker tucked away in a corner of the MBN lot. It features a custom paint job of white-hot flames that envelop an immaculately polished jet-black exterior. What really catches my attention, though, is the team’s name: Two Worthless Nuts. Hailing from Cleveland, Two Worthless Nuts’ team captain Robert Marion has traveled farther than any other competitor, and his team name pays homage to his native state and the poisonous nut that gives it its nickname (“What is a Buckeye?” goes the local saying. “It’s nothing but a worthless nut.”). He’s a giant of a man with a vise-grip handshake whose husky voice crackles like hickory chips on an open flame. My arrival is serendipitous. Marion’s partner couldn’t make the trip to Charlotte, and he agrees, on the spot, to make me an honorary— if only temporary—Worthless Nut. I take a seat on yet another lawn chair with yet another beer, while Marion gives me a personal backgrounder. A full-time military family life consultant, he counsels soldiers and their families regarding the daily stresses of military life. The barbecue circuit, Marion says, has been a way to form great friendships and satisfy his competitive nature. “There’s nothing like putting your best effort into cooking the perfect rib,” he says, as he trims and dry rubs thirteen slabs of pork rib (beef is blasphemy in the MBN) for their trip to the smoker. When I ask him who his greatest rival is, he says, without missing a beat, “Myron Mixon and Jack’s Old South.” I agree to help out at Marion’s tent when the competition heats up, but first I want to visit the backyard grillers to see how the amateurs are stacking up. The scene on the gravel lot is like that of a post-apocalyptic refugee potluck. Jimmied grills shroud the area in a thick, sweet smoke while everyone from diaper-wearing toddlers to octogenarians is camped out under

Few have more street cred in the cook-off scene than celebrity chef and Food Network star Anne Burrell. Here, she dishes out five tips for always coming out on top. 1. Work on time management. When time is up, you need to be done or you’re out. 2. Be creative: embrace the challenges and whatever special ingredients you may be given. 3. Mise en Place means “everything in place” and is crucial in competition. Being organized can make the difference between a good idea and a finished dish. 4. Work cleanly. Your prep station shouldn’t look like a bachelor pad. 5. Kiss up to the judges: smile, wink, dance, flirt, take no prisoners—do whatever you have to do to win!

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makeshift tents. Coolers overflow with hunks of pork butt, baby formula and more than a few bottles of homemade moonshine. rom a lobster seafood cook-off near Portland, ME, to a chili contest in San Antonio, towns across the US are turning food competitions into big business. Matt Timms, founder of a boutique food competition company called The Takedown says that amateur food contests unify the nation. “These kinds of events lend themselves to any demographic. You’ll see a single mom pitted against a hipster or a millionaire dermatologist who makes jerky out of a boar he killed himself.” Timms is noticing a greater surge of people who love to cook and want to leave “pretention and snobbiness” to the professionals. There’s no pretention whatsoever among the backyard grillers, whose strategy varies depending on the team. For some, it’s an amped-up party, are while cutting block others their

being told, says Terry D’Amato, a spitfire judge who’s traveled all the way from York, PA to lend her barbecue expertise. “I’ve heard it all,” she spouts. “One team told me how their hogs slept only on the right side so one slab of ribs would be more tender.” D’Amato lets me follow on her heels for the final judging of the whole hog. It is the most time-consuming and complex meat to prepare, and less than half of the professional teams have even attempted it. Teams huddle, intently debating whether to stoke the fire or spray the meat with diluted apple juice to keep it moist. Apparently, five degrees one way or another can make the difference between a succulent loin and a piece of jerky. Team leaders walk the judges through their rigs, talking about meat injections and the benefits of one sort of wood over another, why temperatures are raised and then lowered again and the virtues of turbinado sugar over agave syrup. It exhausts me, and I’m reminded

but they can really woo the judges with nonrequired tastings of jowel or bacon. Yazoo’s husband and wife team of Pete and Melissa Cookston have landed 11 first-place finishes this year alone. Melissa is the matriarch in an otherwise male-dominated field and like a mother with a newborn child, was up at 3am to help put the hog in the smoker. “The key is being consistent,” says Melissa, “I’m the OCD one, and we’ve fine-tuned our process so this product comes out the same every time. Plus, it’s babied with love.” Pete approaches with an immaculately plated, delicate bundle of what looks like linguine in vodka sauce. But no. This is bacon. Slow-cooked so that the fat dissolves and leaves only the tender, pink meat—hand-pulled and gathered into one perfect bite. I’m not sure whether I’ve passed out or gone to hog heaven, but when my eyes roll back into focus, Melissa gives me a sly grin and says with well-earned bravado, “That’s competition barbecue.” While Yazoo’s Delta Q has their system a down to science, Zach

teeth with hopes of eventually joining the professional Moonswine circuit. Racers,

I’m not sure whether I’ve passed out or gone to hog heaven, but when my eyes roll back into focus, Melissa says, “That’s competition barbecue.”
of why I scored so terribly on standardized tests as a child. Perhaps my attention span isn’t up to the whole hog. Poised with cameras, spectators have gathered around to get a front-row glimpse of the action and a hush overtakes the lot as plating begins. Colleen Turner, who’s brought her two teenagers to the event, says, “We find the camaraderie of cooking amazing. Every year we meet new, interesting people. The competition is taken seriously, but the fun is just as important. It’s a great way to bring friends and family together and to make new acquaintances with common interests.” While MBN competitors aren’t officially allowed to offer tastings to the public due to health regulations (a separate midway sells barbecue to the masses), those in the know hover like bees at a Sunday picnic, confident they’ll get a taste of the premium meats once judging is complete. I weasel my way into the pack and manage to get a glorious taste from Yazoo’s Delta Q, last year’s MBN Grand Champion. To compete in whole hog, teams must serve samples of ham, shoulder and loin,

Goodyear’s Sauceman’s Barbecue are flying by the seat of their pants

a team of graying frat buddies whose hearty laughs belie a serious competitive streak, half-joke about their origins. “We started this because we wanted to drink in front of cops and not get arrested.” But, in fact, they have a singular goal in mind—to beat Men Who Stare at Pigs, a team spearheaded by one of their bosses. The Racers prep their pork butt and ribs for the grill and imply that they are likely to be passed out on the ground by the following afternoon—I’m not sure whether they mean from moonshine or sheer hard work. When I stop by the next day, though, the team is up and moving about (albeit a bit worse for wear), feeling confident that their meat will impress the judges. inally, it’s Judgment Day, when judges make the rounds of the amateur tents for on-site tasting. Competitors use this opportunity to spin fanciful tales to woo the judges and have been playfully warned by MBN representatives that the “judges know everything you tell them won’t be the truth.” That doesn’t stop colorful stories from

as first-time competitors with an overweight and unanticipated hiccup in their strategy. ful Growers, a 10-acre diversified farm just outside of Charlotte, to procure their heritage Tamworth hog, but when they arrived their choices were limited to a 267-pounder—the largest hog in the competition. Goodyear built a pit directly on the pavement out of concrete blocks and has been stoking the fire on rotational shifts with his crew for more than a day. In spite of time under his belt from Johnson & Wales University, one of the nation’s top culinary institutions, this cooking technique is an homage to his North Carolina roots. He hopes that the method, passed down from his grandfather as a celebration at the end of the tobacco harvest, will earn authenticity points with the judges, although once the judges have left he admits that he was “as nervous as a long-tailed cat sittin’ behind a rocking chair.” “People are taking greater pride in their personal food history,” says Moira Campbell, particularly when that identity is carried outside of the area where a cuisine originates.

Goodyear and his crew had gone out to Grate-

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“These are familial and cultural traditions that can be worn as a badge of honor. For the food competitor enthusiast or even someone just traveling to a new destination, it’s an inroad to the identity of a particular locale. There is no better way to gain a sense of place than through these kinds of events. While a fashionista layers clothing, a foodie layers flavor—it’s history and tradition all wrapped up in a morsel.” Nowhere is this truer than in barbecue, where the eastern North Carolina vinegar-based sauce, the Memphis dry rub and the South Carolina mustard sauces each carry with them culinary and cultural traditions. Food competitors are also not short on opinion, and I’ve gotten a few insider tips on Charlotte—culinary and otherwise—that no guidebook could provide. From which upand-coming neighborhood is worth checking out (NoDa) to a must-visit barbecue and biker bar (Mac’s Speed Shop), I’ll anchor my next getaway with a food competition and count on the locals to steer me in the right direction. But for now, I’ve got a bone to pick and plate.

With the whole hog judging complete, I make a mad dash to Two Worthless Nuts to help Marion with his blind box rib plating. The clock is ticking as he gives the immaculate slabs a final brush of his signature sauce—a sweet and spicy glaze with a cayenne kick. Once the box is sent off to the judges, Marion takes a deep breath, lights up a cigarette and resigns himself to the fact that it’s now all in the hands (and palettes) of the judges. y 6pm, most of the trailers are packed up and the competition portion of the Time Warner Cable BBQ & Blues is coming to a close. The results are in and the teams are showing the wear and tear of their marathon cooking session. As expected, Jack’s Old South takes top honors, winning the Grand Championship and a coveted spot at the 2012 Memphis in May. Zach Goodyear and Sauceman’s BBQ leave empty-handed, save for the dozens of cinder blocks they have to remove from the parking

lot. Yazoo’s Delta Q’s whole hog places second, and I’m tempted to storm the stage in outrage. The boys from Moonswine Racers, meanwhile, take first in the amateur ribs category and, I imagine, everyone in the backyard grillers lot gets to hear about it. For Rob Marion and Two Worthless Nuts, the results are bittersweet. Jack’s Old South crushes the competition, but when the individual scores are revealed, Marion’s team ranks above Mixon’s in the rib category with a point-and-a-half spread. I feel like a kicker who nails a last minute tying field goal, only to have the opposing team score a touchdown in overtime. For all of Marion’s confidence during the competition, I can tell that he’s genuinely disappointed. During my short stint in the Memphis Barbecue Network, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, or even how you play the game, but rather whom you’re playing with. Next to flavor, camaraderie reigns supreme in the unpredictable world of food competitions—and sometimes being a worthless nut ain’t such a bad thing.

Theo Peck and Nick Suarez, the duo behind The Food Experiments (thefoodex, were once cutthroat rivals on New York’s competitive cooking scene. Today, they’re producing some of the most exciting cook-offs and throwdowns on the circuit. Peck (left) offers an insider’s perspective:

You and Nick knew each other as rivals? “Yeah, he and I had a…I don’t even know if it was a friendly rivalry, but it was definitely a rivalry. We were each other’s main competition. We came in first and second in at least four different competitions, and we even tied in the Bacon Takedown and the Park Slope Pork-off. With Nick, I always liked to tease him that second is the first loser.” Speaking of rivalry, you won Casserole Crazy in 2008, but Nick won it in 2009 and you didn’t even place. No offense, but what happened? “I’d like to emphasize that at the 2009 competition, I had a 103º fever. So I could neither taste my food nor breathe on it, so I had to make a casserole based solely on what I thought would work. I did receive, by the way, honorable mention. And I still, to this day, think that it was the best one out there, and I think that even Nick said it was the best bite he’d had all night. That’s all I have to say about that.” So who crossed no man’s land first? “After the Bacon Takedown, when I received [as a prize] what I think was my third Rachael Ray cookbook, I thought it was time for Nick and I to partner and

see if we couldn’t do these food competitions better.” Tell us about the psyche of the food competitor. “These people are looking for an outlet. They’re government workers, they’re lawyers, they’re doctors—and it’s not that they’re dissatisfied with their day jobs, but sometimes they dream of doing other things, like an opening a restaurant. And to have Bon Appétit’s Andrew Knowlton or some other big-name food critic try their food and rate it, how awesome is that? They’re looking for validation. It’s one thing to have your spouse or your friends taste your food and say it’s great, but what about 300 strangers?” What do you think is behind the cookoff craze? “People are seeing all these competitions on television, and they think, ‘How would I do on an amateur Top Chef?’ Top Chef is very popular, and I think it started this avalanche of food competitions from Gordon Ramsay’s competitions to Top Chef Masters, Top Chef Desserts and The Great Food Truck Race—there are so many food competitions out there. And Top Chef is on its ninth season, so it’s been building for quite some time.”

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While barbecue is king in the world of food competitions, there are plenty of other gastronomic gauntlets being thrown down. Whether you’re a spectator or a competitor, you’re bound to find a culinary battle lurking around the corner.

Mesquite, NV (86 miles from Las Vegas) The International Chili Society celebrates 45 years of capsicum creations. Leave the beans at home. Jan. 14.

Frankenmuth, MI (28 miles from Flint) Known as “Little Bavaria,” this small town brings out big competition as apple crumble takes on double crust. Jan. 25.

Hondo, TX (46 miles from San Antonio) Old West enthusiasts celebrate the heritage of chuck wagons with a contest that relies on cooking methods from 1860s cattle drives. Feb. 26.


Orlando The motherload of all cooking competitions, this year’s winner of the 45th Annual Bake-Off® will walk away with a hefty $1 million. Will it be savory or sweet? March 25-27.

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