We were BBQ ninjas on a mission.
The goal: to make it onto the stage at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest at Memphis in May.
This wasn’t an ordinary goal. It was one that had eluded the team in the past 3 years of cooking Whole Hog at the contest. We were warriors. And we were determined to make it this year.
This is the story of a highly motivated team, assembled by a strong leader, who applied their talents and achieved their goal.
But dreams don’t just happen; you have to make them happen.
John Bovinette, owner of Steamboat BBQ, had cooked 17 hogs over the course of the past 12 months to get ready. Let that sink in. 17 hogs.
John had assembled a strong team of specialists and we had just descended upon Memphis. When we first arrived, everyone was in the middle of load in and set up. It was hot, dusty and completely unreal. Not at all like setting up a 10x10 popup like we do at KCBS contests.
People were building incredibly elaborate and creative booths, boasting piles of trophies from this World Championship or that World Championship. All of the big names in BBQ were there!! It was going to be epic.
Judging for Memphis in May follows Memphis Barbecue Network (MBN) protocol, meaning a combination of a blind presentation box as well as an on-site presentation to certified MBN judges.
It’s a format I’m pretty unfamiliar with, but Smoke Freaks were brought in to help design and build a stunning presentation box to dazzle the judges. I had already put a lot of pressure on myself and it was suddenly starting to get real.
I tried to convince myself that building a box was easy, provided you had delicious hog cooked on the best equipment by experienced pitmasters. And we were going to have copious amounts of that!
At long last, it was finally time to turn our attention to the actual hog cook -- trimming, seasoning and a bunch of other steps until finally getting them on the cookers. It was an enormous amount of work, not to mention the physical stamina needed to lift and move whole hogs around. Yet no one seemed too tired, seemingly fueled by the adrenaline of the experience.
Cooking a whole hog takes a looooooong time. And in my mind, that means there are lots of opportunities for things to go wrong. Suddenly cooking four pork butts on a drum smoker at a KCBS contest felt very, very small. It takes an incredible amount of skill and experience to master a hog, much less 3 of them at once like Team Steamboat did.
There was a full moon that night and I howled in the hopes of doing a good job with the box.
The morning of turn-in day was a bit of a blur, but the team was ready. Mr. Freak and I had brought The Freakage, and it was a matter of executing our game plan. Here comes pan after pan of hog! It’s game time!
I will never forget the feeling of staring at that empty turn in box and then making eye contact with pans and pans of eligible shoulder, ham and loins that had been hand picked by John.
It was almost like some twisted pork joke. This was undeniably the most important pork box we were ever going to build. Could there be any more pork pressure?!? I mean really, pork? It was time to stay focused, take a deep breath and get to work.
Finally, we dropped in the last piece of meat. After some final consultation and adjustments with John, I closed the box. This was it. It was now up to someone else to walk that box. I’m a total control freak, so it was really hard for me to let go …
We exited the trailer door and were shocked to see that the booth had been transformed into a tropical paradise of flowers, fruits, beautiful table settings and a fully garnished hog. Something magical had happened outside, while Mr. Freak and I were absorbed in the 90-minute process of building the box.
That magic continued as John and his lieutenants Mike Ouellette and Pat Scott presented to three consecutive judges. I was just a spectator at this point but I was beaming with pride as I heard the passion in their presentation.
After the last judge departed, the longest two hours of my life began -- waiting to see if we made Hog Finals. Of all the teams cooking hogs, only three make finals. Were we going to make it?
Tick tock tick tock …
Suddenly our ambassador showed up at our booth, but she’s wearing a serious expression. This can’t be good. If she was there to deliver news, I was pretty convinced it was going to be the kind of news you don’t want to receive. Had I left a Q-Tip in the turn-in box? Did a wayward piece of bacon end up in the fill? A speck of foil?
She handed over a folded piece of paper. There’s not much on it but it still took awhile for our eyes to focus on what we were seeing.
Steamboat BBQ had just made finals for Whole Hog!! John and crew were going to walk the stage!! The look on John’s face said it all.
And then almost immediately, John got us all re-focused on what was going to come next. In two hours, we were going to be visited by four more judges for the Whole Hog finals presentation.
Our booth underwent another transformation as the other teams started bringing over their flowers, stools and more to help us dress up our space. It was without a doubt the greatest display of #BBQFamily I’d ever seen.
Those two hours flew by and next thing I know, we’d welcomed the final judges near the cooker and John began his final presentation. It was my job to hand each judge a serving plate with their assorted hog samples. My mind was racing … what if I tripped and dropped the plate? What if I forgot my lines?
Everything went according to plan, the presentation ended and it was in the judges' hands.
After a weather delay, the awards ceremony began and we saw all those giant trophies on that enormous stage. One of those was going home with John!
Steamboat BBQ was called for 3rd in the world, Whole Hog. We had made it on stage.
Congratulations to the entire Steamboat BBQ crew!! You’ve shown me what is possible when you are determined to succeed.
If there’s one thing I know about passionate BBQ people, it’s this, “Behind every mountain is another mountain.”
I can’t wait to see what Memphis in May 2020 brings.
P.S. We received the score sheet after this blog was written and it turns out we had a perfect appearance score with the blind box … and won the preliminary round!!
Ann is Co-Founder & Head Cook for Smoke Freaks ... and she's fallen head over heels in love with Pork.