I really needed this week off from the BBQ competition trail. After 10 contests, including a string of 3 doubles and a 1,000 mile journey for a Minnesota comp, it was time to take a break. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-by-day excitement and flurry of BBQ-related activities and for me, not so easy to take a pause, rest and recharge.
We had one of our toughest cooks recently in Kewanee, IL, which I attribute partially to not being rested from the previous week’s double and the 1,000 miles of driving our Wolf Wagon. I definitely didn’t see it coming even though I thought I was taking pretty good care of myself.
When we’re competing, I get a lot less sleep and average about 15,000 steps a day. What I hadn’t really paid too much attention to is the impact of walking up and down the RV steps hundreds of times in a weekend. Our Wolf Wagon setup is a vast improvement over where we started with a tent in the street, but it still forces us to haul a lot of stuff in and out and up and down. And at the end of the day, we’re still cooking out in the street under a tent.
It all starts to take a toll.
It’s been a great week off so far. We’ve surrounded ourselves with fresh vegetables and fruit, have hung out with family and friends and have been able to tackle plenty of other life priorities that were stacking up.
BBQ is still on my mind though.
Like today. It’s Wednesday which means it’s meat trimming day… but not today! Hooray!
And then last night when we had neighbors over for Taco Tuesday featuring last week’s competition leftovers. It was great to hear people rave about the pork, especially since the judges don’t seem to like it.
Although we’re laying low this this weekend, we’re another A/B/C test to dial in our pork recipe before Sam’s Club in Indianapolis next weekend.
One of my BBQ friends recently announced that he “wasn’t gonna change anything” after a disappointing showing at the Westmont Red, White & BBQ competition. Smoke Freaks were equally perplexed with our results from that event, as we had one of our best ever cooks, only to be nearly shut out at awards.
When something that’s always worked stops working, it really starts to get under your skin.
It makes you stop and think about whether it’s time to make an adjustment or whether to just hang in there through the rough patch, knowing (hoping) it will eventually turn around. It’s hard to know exactly when to make that pivot since judging has inherent subjective aspects (like “taste”) and you hit new judges each week.
And how do you ever know what the right answer is?
I’ve heard of a general rule to give it at least 3 cooks before you make changes, and then start with one change at a time. Others stay the course and continue to do what they do best. And some take on bigger risks with larger scale changes.
We’re facing that crossroads with pork this year. We had an early call at the beginning of the season and are cooking better than ever before, yet our scores aren’t what we want them to be. And that’s true even since before I became the pork cook.
We’re getting pretty tired of the status quo, so we’ve started to make some adjustments to pork. The first was a flavor element last weekend that carries into this weekend’s debut of some new Freakage at the Heritage Days BBQ Showdown in Belvidere, IL.
Last Saturday, in the middle of our chicken cook, I had a complete freak out. I couldn’t remember if I had actually made the turn-in boxes or not. All 4 boxes were ready to go, of course, but it really struck me that this momentary uncertainty could have gotten under my skin to the point of interfering with a cook that was going very, very well.
(Worst case scenario, we would have gone commando on the boxes. But shaking off that feeling of dread was not so easy, at least for me.)
The Smoke Freaks method of competition BBQ is a series of hundreds and hundreds of little tasks that are all really important. Many things have to happen in a very specific way, and so many tasks are completely dependent on other tasks. When you’re having a great cook, all of those things happen in perfect harmony. It all just flows and the right things happen at exactly the right time.
But in order to pull this off, you’ve got to have your game face on -- AND -- you have to be ready to deal with the unexpected. Because something will usually happen that could knock you off course.
Supplies: Do you bring all the right stuff needed to execute your cook? What if you accidentally left the injections at home? Can you figure out a way to deal with it or are you SOL?
(Wo)Manning the Pit: Are you focused enough to keep an eye on your pit temps for the duration of the cook even when you have to multitask? If you had to crank open the exhaust to bring up the temp, did you remember to adjust it back down at just the right time so it doesn’t run away from you?
Boxing: Are you observant enough to find anything weird, like a worm in your kale? Because even a microscopic piece of foil will get you DQ’d. It could have happened to us in a brisket box last year in Indiana, but fortunately we discovered it in time and walked away with an RGC instead of a DQ.
Weather: Can you deal with 35 MPH winds or a huge downpour right as you’re getting ribs on? It’s no sweat for the teams who basically cook indoors, but those of us under popups have to batten down the hatches.
Equipment & Fuel: Can your cooker deal with these weather conditions and still run steady? (Our Hunsaker Smokers ran perfectly during two days of crazy weather.) Did you put the charcoal and wood somewhere where it won’t get wet?
Transportation: What if the lock on your RV door malfunctions and you can’t open it? Will you have time to find an RV store, locate the right part and be able to install a new lock? (Been there, done that.)
The Enemy Within: Can you deal with ever-changing conditions and all the logistics that are needed to pull off a winning cook? Can you handle all the uncertainty? Do you believe in yourself enough to rise above whatever comes your way? Do you want it bad enough?
Next up on the American Freakage Tour is stop #9, the Hog Capital Challenge in Kewanee, IL. Freak ON!
A week off from the American Freakage Tour 2017 has given me lots of time to reflect on our season after the 6 competition mark. As we prepare for a 1,000 mile road trip this weekend, Smoke Freaks have seen new achievements and even came close to BBQ glory… and we’ve been plenty disappointed.
Sometimes it comes from within. Like that nagging realization of not being on top of your game, when your focus was off and you knew you blew it. Yeah, that stinks. And other times, it’s a result of cranking out one of your best cooks ever, only for the judges to have other ideas.
The data illustrates that Smoke Freaks have clearly had more ups and downs this year than we did in our first season, despite the additional competition experience we’ve gained. I think we’re competing at a higher level this year, and when our scores tank, we’re sometimes left scratching our heads.
I’ve come to believe that the best and most consistent measure of success in competition BBQ is your own assessment of your performance. I think you return from the day’s last turn in with a very clear sense of how you did, if you’re brutally honest with yourself -- at least we do. In two recent competitions, I summed it up like this, “I don’t care what happens at awards, I’m proud of this cook and wouldn’t change a thing.”
Now in one of those competitions, we walked away as Reserve Grand Champions in a field of 59. And in the other, we got totally, and I mean totally smoked. So what gives? In the long run, I think a lot comes down to skill. But in the short term, there’s a whole lot of luck involved.
Sometimes, all you get is the personal satisfaction of knowing it was a cook to be proud of. Even if it was an amazing cook, the kind where everything comes together splendidly… that might be all you get. It doesn’t matter how hard you tried or how much money you spent or how many miles you drove to get there. Sometimes, that’s all you get.
And then sometimes, that makes you even more determined to hit the jackpot like we’re planning to do up at the Mankato Cookoff on June 10th and 11th. It’s our first competition in Minnesota so we’re excited to deliver the Freakage!
Ann is Co-Founder & Head Cook for Smoke Freaks ... and she's fallen head over heels in love with Pork.