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!!
Four years ago today, I cooked BBQ for the very first time. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the adventure that was about to unfold, all thanks to some chicken wings.
Before that, I didn’t even really like smoked meat. But it was starting to become a regular fixture at the Neale household and I was learning to appreciate it. That led to us entering a backyard BBQ competition right down the street from our house. It was a brutal day, but we stuck to our plan and Smoke Freaks were called as Rib Champions. That first taste of success was intoxicating.
Pretty soon, we started to do pro competitions, and I was getting a lot more involved in the operation. It was my “freaky attention to detail” that got our logistics in order, got us organized, and got us on the road. And, I produced most of our sauce, rub and glaze program.
Back then, I was involved with most aspects of the cook, but it wasn’t my cook. So I set out to learn as much as I could.
Chicken was our toughest category when we first hit the pro scene -- we actually had to bring in “ringers” to cook it our first few competitions.
I got 9th place the first time I took over the chicken cook, and it was a moment the town of Green Bay will never forget. I worked hard at my process and got to be last man standing with 1st place chicken several times over the rest of the summer. I was getting deeper and deeper into the entire Smoke Freaks operation, eventually picking up the Pork cook, too. (That’s a whole other story.)
As our 2018 season was winding down, I started to realize I was doing everything that a Head Cook does, except maybe driving the Wolf Wagon. (It’s better this way. Trust me.)
It hasn’t been all fun and games. Competition BBQ can be brutal on your body and especially on your mind. There are extreme highs and devastating lows. And with all of that is a competitive spirit that pushes me to achieve more.
Today, on International Women’s Day, it’s an awesome coincidence that as of 9:56 a.m., I am officially the Head Cook of Smoke Freaks.
Oh, and we have so much more big news to come ...
“It looks like a pile of dog $#!+.”
Not exactly what you want to hear from your teammate when you have just 3 minutes left to get your p❤️rk box to the judges tent. At that moment, my heart started pounding and my head was spinning.
Then, a frantic blur of activity. A hot mess of p❤️rk parts, knives, sauce and strong language. And a very bruised ego -- mine.
Somehow I made turn-in, but man, I knew I had screwed up. We still had one more category left, and was I feeling pretty deflated. Poor brisket didn’t have a chance after that p❤️rk $#!+-show!
So what happened?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but we had committed a cardinal sin -- we’d given up on the box.
Those words -- “it looks like dog $#!+” -- stung. They seemed awfully harsh at the time, especially coming from Mr. Freak.
Heading to awards, I knew we’d take a hit on appearance, but thought we’d be OK on taste and tenderness. Then Mr. Freak reminded me that even the most diligent judges can’t help but eat with their eyes, and that the first impression tells your brain what kind of experience to expect.
We started off strong with a couple of great calls -- 3rd place chicken and 3rd place ribs. People were high-fiving us left and right. But we knew. P❤️rk was going to kill us.
And it did. We ended up with our worst category showing ever -- 38th place out of 40. That, combined with 20th in brisket, dragged us down to 10th place overall.
Don’t get me wrong, any day with a top-10 finish is a great day. But we knew we’d blown an opportunity to finish a lot higher.
It had happened again. P❤️rk got the best of us. I was completely dejected.
I was still pretty ticked off, but knew we couldn’t stay there. We needed to fix this problem once and for all. So we spent the 3-hour drive home documenting a new p❤️rk boxing process, all the way down to where we’re standing as we execute all 17 steps.
That exercise helped us go into our next competition with a great attitude because we had a new system that we were totally confident in.
And it worked! Not only was p❤️rk boxing a more calm and enjoyable experience, we had gained efficiencies that saved precious minutes and helped ensure we ended up with the best stuff in the box.
We ended up with a great p❤️rk call that helped make Smoke Freaks the Grand Champions at the Hog Capital BBQ Challenge in Kewanee, IL that day.
I was happy with our cook and thrilled with the outcome, but I knew the real win was that we had succeeded in using our epic failure as the motivation to make a huge improvement in our operation.
I’m not about to claim victory over p❤️rk, but I know we’re a lot less likely to blow it at the finish line now.
July 10, 2016, is a day I’ll never forget: My first pro chicken cook at the Gold Ribbin’ BBQ Festival in Green Bay.
My memories of the 50-minute cook are kind of fuzzy, but the award ceremony will be etched in my mind forever. I scored 9th place out of 55 teams, including some of the best in the country.
Smoke Freaks were just getting started in competition BBQ back then, so we didn’t know too many people. If anyone recognized me at all, it was as “that weird chick in the wolf hat.” And certainly no one besides Mr. Freak knew I had anything to do with our success that day.
I kept at it, and over that season I learned a lot about cooking chicken. But I was certainly no pitmaster.
I could run my cook, but I didn’t fully understand all the factors that would result in (or ruin) the outcome I hoped for. Cooking BBQ was something I did, but I wasn’t ready to call myself a “BBQ cook.”
2017 was different.
Our BBQ family was growing, along with my BBQ knowledge and skill. I started to present myself as the “chicken cook,” and I was operating more and more independently in other aspects of our operation. Oh, and by the middle of the year, I’d also picked up the p❤️rk cook!
The net effect was that I started to believe in my BBQ skills a whole lot more. I was getting more comfortable talking shop with other cooks. We weren’t just exchanging pleasantries anymore … I was having serious conversations with legit BBQ cooks!
One day in particular stood out.
About a dozen of us were comparing notes after Day 1 turn-ins at a double competition. The conversation had been stuck on chicken for a while when suddenly another cook said, “Wait a minute. Are you telling me you don’t brine your chicken?”
The question was directly squarely at me, even though Mr. Freak was sitting right there with us. I was not only becoming a real BBQ cook in my own mind, but in other cooks’ minds too!
A few weeks later, we were back in Green Bay for the 2017 Gold Ribbin’ doubleheader, and Smoke Freaks were called Chicken champion out of 57 teams on Day 1. It was my first No. 1 finish, and it was on a big stage, at the top of a mountain of great competitors. Even if I had taken Mr. Freak with me on that long, gratifying walk to collect my 18-pound trophy (I didn’t), almost everyone there would have known that was MY cook.
The very next day I scored another top-3 chicken call, prompting one of my dearest BBQ friends (and a veritable BBQ god) to call me a “chicken expert.”
And he was right. In that year since my very first Pro chicken cook, I had run 100% of the show, from procurement to the moment the box is delivered to the judges tent. And on that particular weekend, all that hard work had come together to produce the best of the best.
I finally knew I had transformed into a bonafide BBQ cook
Fast forward to today -- 8 cooks into our 2018 season -- and I’ve noticed something else has changed, just over these last few weeks. Lots of other cooks now contact me directly, not just to talk chicken, but about other aspects of competitive BBQ as well:
I could talk about BBQ for hours. I love it.
It’s not all fun and games, though. It’s hard to win a BBQ comp without a solid Chicken call, and I own 100% of the outcome -- good, bad or horrific.
I started on shaky chicken ground this year with a 6-comp dry spell. It was starting to become an existential threat to our BBQ careers, so I had to figure it out fast.
I ended up deconstructing my entire cook and realized that over the course of a lot of minor adjustments, I had gradually made a big change to one aspect of my cook. Light bulbs went off and I understood why my chicken wasn’t working. More importantly, I knew what I needed to do to start getting calls again.
I feel like a real “pitmaster” wouldn’t have gotten off track to begin with, or at least would have known what was wrong without reverse-engineering the whole cook. So I know I’m not yet worthy of that lofty title. Besides, there are still MANY more things in BBQ left for me to master.
But I’m working on it. And I’m pretty sure my chicken is back on track.
Mr. Freak joined the rockstar Whole Hog team from Steamboat BBQ last week for 6 action-packed days at the World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest at Memphis in May.
Over those days this die-hard team pitmastered by Steamboat's John Bovinette moved tons of equipment, built a BBQ palace beside the river, threw a fully catered corporate event, competed in 5 ancillary contests and prepared two gorgeous hogs for the main event, where we finished 12th overall in a field stacked with many of the famous cooks you've all seen on TV.
This photo essay captures some of the notable moments...
It’s said that all good things must come to an end, and sadly, that’s the case with the 2017 Smoke Freaks team lineup.
At 7:27 p.m. on Thursday, April 19, after two years of anchoring our lineup, Pam The Alpha Pit was called home for a comfortable and well-deserved semi-retirement.
Pam’s a real champ. In 2 seasons on the competition BBQ trail, she produced 21 top-10 calls in Brisket, her main cook, and another 21 calls assisting her twin Redrum on Ribs. (Pam always handled the post-wrap part of the Rib cook.)
We try not to play favorites when it comes to our pits, but Pam holds a special place in our hearts. She emerged as the natural leader of the pack as soon as she hit the competition trail in June 2016.
Truth be told, we didn’t see it coming. After all, Pam had a pretty rough entry into the world after some rough handling by the delivery company left her severely dented, unable to so much as open her lid to accept her first basket of lump.
So we appealed to her maker, none other than Mr. Hunsaker himself, who expedited a replacement barrel that we lovingly but tentatively swapped in, like a heart transplant performed with nuts and bolts by inexperienced surgeons.
We wondered if a pit born of such humble conditions could ever rise to the level of a true champion?
Pam recovered beautifully from the transplant. As soon as she hit the competition trail, she started impressing teammates and competitors alike with her grace under pressure and ability to hold a steady temp, even when neglected by her distracted pitmasters in terrible weather.
I feel like I became a real pitmaster with Pam at my side. We’ve been through a lot, and she was a big part of my learning the ropes. Pam’s first big win was Reserve Grand Championship her fifth time out at New Palestine, IN, in July 2016, and it was my first big win, too. Together, we never looked back.
I’m convinced it’s in Pam’s DNA to instinctively run the perfect cook. She’s a joy to pitmaster, and it’s no wonder, given the incredible design of these Hunsaker Smokers.
First off, there’s the fire basket. The patented Vortex design creates a tornado of heat that ensures even cooking, even with a full load of meat.
And I’m a huge fan of the floating hinge, so I’m not stuck dealing with a lid. Thanks to this feature, we rarely have our pits open for more than 20 seconds at a time, which makes a HUGE difference in keeping the fire rolling steady.
Another big Hunsaker plus: The larger wheels make them highly portable. Believe me, that matters when you’re moving pits up and down a trailer ramp and across the variety of terrains we see over our 9-month season. Sand, gravel, mud, snow, tall prairie grass, you name it … these pits roll like a dolly with their tall wheels cruising over anything.
Finally, there’s the adjustable rack system with heavy-duty expanded-metal grates. This innovative design affords ridiculous flexibility. We’ve hung beef tenderloins and turkeys within her cavernous belly. We’ve cooked 50 hot links at once, and she could handle twice that many if we threw in a couple more grates. Six butts at a time? No problem!
But still, even with all that great design, I’m convinced that Pam The Alpha Pit is one-of-a-kind. Some would say we’re crazy to even consider taking her off the competition trail after all the success she’s had. And there’s no question, her 72% call rate on Brisket leaves big shoes to fill.
And you had better believe, they will be filled. By these guys...
Introducing Money and Cash, aka The Glitter Twins, who make their debut in the Smoke Freaks lineup May 4-6 at the Masters in May doubleheader in Appleton, WI.
Money and Cash represent the latest, greatest design thinking out of the Hunsaker Smokers workshop in Columbia, MO. Over the two years since Pam joined us, our good friends Mark and Ryan have been fine-tuning their design for simplicity and quality.
What’s new since then?
And so alas, sometimes you get replaced by a newer model. Happens to the best of us, and sometimes it’s just better step away while you’re still at the top of your game.
But weep not for Pam The Alpha Pit. From now on, she’ll be living the good life at home, cooking all manner of meats unadulterated with all the goofy stuff we put into competition BBQ. Instead, she’ll be cooking the food we actually eat ourselves, along with the occasional competition test recipe. She might even cook a pizza or bake some smoked cookies for good measure.
Before sailing off into semi-retirement, Pam spent plenty of time with the new lineup, passing on tidbits of wisdom to help them follow in her footsteps. And she wants you to know she’ll be back. She wants another shot at glory. Maybe at the Royal. Maybe at the Jack.
She’s already missing her BBQ family, and she’s howling for you.
Competition BBQ season is finally here, and we are beyond ready to get #FreakWatch2018 underway!
It's been exactly 147 days since our last contest. How is it that 147 days can feel both like an eternity ... and like it was just yesterday?
Well, that's the mystery of BBQ time.
By our 25th contest last year, Smoke Freaks had gotten into a serious grove and our timing was d-o-w-n. So much of competition BBQ comes down to timing, specifically staying on a schedule so that the four meats cook to the ideal window of tenderness, allowing you to submit your best work to the judges at exactly the prescribed time.
No surprise, then, that we're driven by the clock.
The Smoke Freaks operation runs on a 3-page timeline, and it's down to the minute. Each task is categorized, then synced to our BBQ playlist. So whenever you hear "Werewolves of London" fade into some Eminem, now you know it's time for me to start working on the chicken.
Time. It's woven into every aspect of our BBQ operation...
Time wasted running around town looking for kale.
Time to motorboat the pork.
Time for my 9 a.m. cook day beer.
Time for "the 9:22" with BBQ family.
It has its claw in everything we do...
Time is your enemy when you have a 4 minute, 33 second walk to turn-in.
Time is your friend when it takes 25 minutes to build a pork box.
Time is what burns you if you change time zones but your clock doesn't.
Time is what saves you when the chicken's not quite done at 11:45.
Time. There's not a thing you can do to speed it up or slow it down. BBQ is done when it's done!
So those 147 days in the off-season were really, really weird: We had so much more time for other things. Our obsession with time started to fade. Life moved at a different pace.
Eventually, time lost some of its power.
But BBQ time is funny like that; it's almost an illusion. Because when it changes, it changes fast and sucks you right back in. You know it's BBQ time again because everything feels better. The warmth is returning. The anticipation building. BBQ is in the air!
Time. It's precious because it's limited. So, if you're going to throw yourself at this crazy thing called competition BBQ, be sure to take the time to enjoy it.
Even when the foil is hosed, your money muscle blows out, or you go home empty handed.
It will happen so let it. All in good time. #FreakON
So, this is it? Competition #25 and the end of the American Freakage Tour 2017? Where did the year go?
It seems like just yesterday I was getting our inventory together for our first cook in April. You know, the cook where we got rightfully spanked on our horrible brisket turn in. Yeah, that one with the 5 in taste and tenderness. Back then we thought brisket needed the most work. Little did we know about the p❤rk journey that was about to unfold!
Have I really seen kale through 3 seasons, learning the hard way that spring and fall kale are WAY better than summer kale?
Did I really trim 625 pieces of chicken over the course of our season?
Did those extreme lows and awesome highs really happen?
Even though we’re at the end of the season, I still feel a ton of energy to get out there and keep dialing in p❤rk. Oh yes, that was quite a journey this season with p❤rk. It was a challenge like no other.
Speaking of p❤rk, today we packed those last three butts into the cooler along with all the other meats for this weekend. And lifted totes, lots of totes. Cooler and totes. I guess that means we just sherpa-ed them out to the garage for the last time this year?
I’ll admit I was just a tiny bit sad when I did the Wednesday Shuffle for the last time. Sad to have mixed the last injection. Realizing I was scraping my last chicken skin. Packing the last rubs.
So, this really is it. We’re headed to Osawatomie, KS, for the Border Wars BBQ competition. It will be the closest we’ve ever been to Mr. Freak’s hometown of KCMO. So one last bash, then it’s Smoke Freaks: Out.
Until then, Freak ON!
Smoke Freaks are excited to welcome Master Certified BBQ Judge candidate Karl to the team for this weekend’s “Best of the Midwest” competition in Union Grove, WI.
A Certified BBQ Judge (CBJ) can apply for Master CBJ status after judging 30 contests, cooking with a team and passing a knowledge test. CBJs are required to cook with a team so they can gain a more intimate view of what it’s like to cook on the pro BBQ circuit. We think it’s also a great way to build relationships between judges and cooks, and hopefully our judge can draw from this experience and become an even better judge.
Smoke Freaks had always planned to host a judge one of these days. It’s the right thing to do as part of the broader KCBS community.
But to be honest, we had some other business we needed to take care of first.
Selfishly, we wanted to preserve as much of our focus for the task at hand -- winning our first Grand Championship.
Plus we wanted to make sure we had something worthwhile to offer our first MCBJ candidate. Our mission is to deliver Freakishly great BBQ experiences, whether we’re cooking, entertaining or coaching and consulting. So if a judge was going to cook with us, “Freakishly great” is the bar we’re aiming for.
We’d been approached a few times before but hadn’t yet welcomed a judge to the team.
Fast forward to the “Harbor Que” competition in Winthrop Harbor, IL. A guy named Karl shows up at our cook site after judging is complete and introduces himself as a MCBJ candidate looking for a team to cook with.
Here we go again.
We explained that we’re not feeling ready to have a judge join us just yet. But the more we got to talking to Karl, the more we thought he was pretty cool. He seemed like he could roll along with our Freak Force, which is really important to us.
Plus, he was wearing a tie-dye, so we got his contact info and promised to let him know one way or the other by Monday.
Well, the awards ceremony ended with a whole lot of howling as we are called up for Grand Champion! We finally did it!
Our thoughts went almost immediately to Karl, and we laughed because even though we’d all but decided to welcome him to the team, we knew there was no way of saying “no” now. Besides, he’s a good luck charm as far as we’re concerned.
But how do we go about making it a Freakishly great experience for him? We got to work on that right away:
And of course, we’re planning to tap into all of his experience when we make decisions on what goes in the turn-in boxes. We can already tell he’ll have some great feedback for us.
I know we’ll learn a lot from the experience, as will Karl. I’m so thankful our paths crossed.
Do you have any thoughts on other ways we can make it Freakishly great for our MCBJ candidate? Drop us a comment and Freak ON!
It's National Pulled P❤rk Day, what else would I blog about?!?
1. The road to victory goes through p❤rk
2. It's all in your head
3. Cook with love, never with rage
4. Attitude is everything
5. Trust your gut
6. Unleash your inner Freak
7. Don't forget to have fun
8. If you want something badly enough, you'll figure it out
9. Some details matter more than others
10. Be a wolf
How crazy is it that 5 or 6 words on a bright yellow card can be so devastating? At least that’s what I used to think, back when I would dread getting one of those bad boys tucked into our scores.
Turns out I had it all wrong. Comment cards are a gift, which I came to understand over the course of this season as we received three of those little presents so far.
Comment Card #1: Brisket, CCS Fest; Indianapolis, IN: Our first brisket turn-in of the year, and we were still experimenting. It came out terrible -- tough as leather and tasting like a salt lick. We salvaged burnt ends, which somehow still tasted kinda like beef, but the box was sub-par and we knew the judges were going to hate it.
And they did, to the tune of 139 points (which might actually have been generous). When I saw a little yellow slip sticking out in the score sheets, I knew it was about to get real.
It wasn’t easy seeing the words “almost impossible to chew.” If I’m being honest, we needed a few minutes to get past our initial reaction and shake off the sting.
But this was one of the best comment cards we’d ever seen because it was descriptive, clear and didn’t leave much to the imagination.
Our scores alone were perfectly clear on the fact that our brisket sucked, but what if we were new or just struggling to figure out what the judges were looking for? Was the texture weird? Was there an unfortunate glob of fat? Was it rubbery, chewy, tough or maybe dry?
This judge’s comments shed light on the situation. “Chewy,” “rubbery” and “fatty” gave us immediate hints on what went wrong. Sure sounds pretty gross.
I guarantee, we haven’t messed up a brisket like that again.
Comment Card #2: Ribs, Mankato Cookout; Mankato, MN: This one really ticked off Mr. Freak at first: “Remove the back membrane.” He’s thinking, “I bet you didn’t eat a rib all day without the membrane peeled, and you sure as heck didn’t get one from us!”
Comments that try to solve problems are especially loathsome to cooks. There was no membrane on those ribs, and none of the other judges beat us up. But instead of throwing our scores into the fire, we decided to diagnose what the judge was actually telling us: something was clearly unpleasant about our tenderness.
(Since then, we’ve figured out what it probably was and came up with a way to mitigate it.)
Comment Card #3: Chicken, Sam’s Club Pro BBQ Tour; Madison, WI: We needed to be in the top 10 to advance to finals. It was a great cook, but we only managed 19th out of 30.
My mind was drifting from, “What are we even doing here?” to “This is just too expensive, too time consuming, too physically taxing and too hard,” to “Is it even worth it?”
Deep, introspective, thought provoking questions that had been brewing for awhile. It was going to be a pretty miserable drive home.
That’s when I saw the comment card. Great, more insult to injury.
“Excellent smoke flavor. Thank you.”
And at that moment, it all changed. The struggle that felt futile just moments before was replaced with a reignited fire in my belly.
On an emotional level, Judge #1 helped me get my fighting spirit back.
On a rational level, Judge #1 had given me perspective to see that it was a stacked field of 29 other teams who had earned their way into the Regionals. 29 great teams. My chicken was on point and the field was tough. It happens. Maybe I’d forgotten that?
Judge #1 gave me something else. I’d had some great calls throughout the season, including 1st place at Green Bay against another stacked field of 58 teams. Getting 1st was great and all, but I didn’t really know why. What was working with my 1st place chicken and how so? What aspects contributed to our top score?
These comments gave me some insight to something I’d already been wondering, what were the components of our flavor profile beyond the obvious seasonings and sauces?
This is super helpful feedback.
Sure, the scores in and of themselves are incredibly helpful data points. But scores alone don’t answer the “why” or “how so” that’s needed to understand the judges’ reaction to your cook.
At The Neale Group, our consulting business, we would never let our clients make important decisions without taking the time to understand both the “quantitative” and “qualitative” side of the story.
Quantitative data is easy to come by for BBQ cooks. That’s our scores, and we get tons of this data every weekend. It’s incredible to be able to see how your individual score compares to a given judge’s average.
But how often do we get the qualitative kind … some indication from a judge to help us understand what they did or didn’t like? It doesn’t matter what I think about our food, or what our friends or even fellow competitors think about it. All that matters is what the 6 judges who evaluated it think about it.
Comment cards don’t need to be lengthy or complex. Just a few checked boxes and a couple of words can add immense context to the story compared to just scores alone.
Every weekend, virtually every cook gives their all to present judges with the very best and most impressive experience we can pull off under the rules.
Every weekend, each judge is on the receiving end of something to the tune of 12-18 full days worth of human effort, delivered to them via 9x9 boxes.
For all the judges who do take the time to write a card or two most of the time, thank you!
For all you judges who never or rarely write comment cards, please consider spending 30 seconds to check a few boxes and write just one or two cards every comp. Make it constructive or make it a compliment. Make it brutal for all we care, just tell us why you scored what scored.
And for all you cooks, keep an open mind when you get one of those "dreaded" yellow cards.
Feedback is a gift, and the right card at the right time might just make all the difference in the world to someone who is struggling or thinking about throwing in the towel out of frustration.
Special guest blogger appearance by Mr. Freak...
I’m not going to lie. We wanted nothing more than to be at the American Royal doubleheader in Kansas City over Labor Day weekend.
But we didn’t make it into the “Invitational” part of the event, which is only open to teams that won a Grand Championship at a qualifying state championship BBQ competition in the months leading up to the event.
Although we could have competed in the American Royal “Open,” which is held in conjunction with the Invitational, Smoke Freaks made a decision at the beginning of our cooking careers that we’re not really ready for the big show in KC until we qualify for the Invitational.
So we did the next best thing with our weekend, with a starring role at the Greek Royale in Hobart, IN.
The Greek Royale takes place every 2-3 years and is attended by a lively pack of Greeks and assorted Hellenophiles who come in from as far away as New York to take part in one of the oldest forms of BBQ known to man -- lamb on a spit.
Over the past 5 Greek Royals, Mr. Freak has learned the nuances required to master this ancient form of pitmastering from one of the Freakiest Greeks in The Region, Mr. George Logothetis, father of Ms. Freak.
My first lesson commenced in 2003, when I was given the unglamorous but important task of sewing up the body cavity of my first lamb. Once the insides had a sufficient coat of salt and pepper with a few lemon halves thrown in to steam the ribs and loins with citrone goodness, it was my job to stitch up the belly.
Being a bit of a perfectionist, I took great care to make it look awesome and symmetrical, like the laces on a Chuck Taylor hi-top. No mean feat at 5 am.
Mr. Logothetis was pleased. So over the years, he gradually imparted upon me the knowledge and wisdom required to cook at the Greek Royale:
This year, it was my turn to put it all together and lead the cook, with massive assists from Mr. Logothetis and his eldest son, Drago. So I brought a secret weapon never before observed at the Greek Royale -- a Thermapen.
By injecting this little technology tool into the ancient tradition, we were able to get our lamb perfectly done from end-to-end after 7 hours and 60 lbs of charcoal. We got 9-9-9s from most judges, including the most important one -- Mrs. Logothetis -- who threatened to strip my pitmaster credentials if I sent anything to the table that wasn’t AT LEAST well-done.
In between basting strokes, we were able to watch some of our friends getting it done at the American Royal. It was so cool to see guys we compete against week in and week out getting some of the biggest calls of their lives.
Our next shot to qualify for the 2018 American Royal is this weekend at Silver Lake, our first foray into Michigan. All we have to do is win the whole shooting match among a field of hungry teams with the exact same idea.
And oh how I love p❤rk. If you’ve read some of my previous blogs, you’ve seen me yammer on about all those moments of doubt and disappointment, anger and frustration, confusion and concern. But you see, those moments actually helped us sharpen our p❤rk game and finally… to break out of our 15-competition p❤rk slump!
That’s right, we got a 6th place p❤rk call at Day 1 of Death’s Door BBQ!! Out of 40!
It was incredible.
And I’d love to tell you how it happened.
Step 1: Diagnose the Problem
A friend, who is also an experienced Certified BBQ Judge, was in touch to make sure we understood how big of a p❤rk problem we really had. It was hard to hear, but that reinforcement helped put even more fire in our belly.
Step 2: Narrow in on Solutions
There are lots of levers to pull, so it helps to have some discipline on what to focus on. One day we were talking shop with some fellow cooks and we took away some new ideas. Namely, to go back to basics and look for ways to simplify things.
Step 3: Perfect the Technique
With a clear solution in mind, it was time to improve some techniques. Again, we did more research and found some new inspiration for our cooking and boxing. More practice, practice, practice.
Step 4: No More Head Games
This one’s great. It was at the welcome reception for the Death’s Door BBQ when my all time BBQ hero told me flat out, “You know what your problem with p❤rk is? It’s all up here,” as he tapped the side of my head. (And it was true. Before we even got to Washington Island, I knew we were getting a p❤rk call. I absolutely believed we would get the job done.)
Step 5: Freak ON!
So on competition day, it was as simple as putting it all together and cooking some p❤rk.
And we did!
We had to do some serious pitmaster gymnastics to adjust to a cook that was somehow running an hour behind schedule and craaahing into our Chicken cook. As our friends from Second Hand Smoke SLV pointed out, it was a 30-40 degree temperature drop from our last several outings, so that probably affected things.
But we figured it out, because we were cooking with love.
When we sliced those money muscles, we knew. I was literally beaming with pride and love for p❤rk when I turned in that box. It seemed criminal to set it on the turn-in table and just walk away.
At that point it was out of our hands. And with some time to kill before awards, we returned to beautiful Schoolhouse Beach to soak up some Island time. There’s good energy there.
That's where I found that beautiful heart shaped rock, my p❤rk rock.
At awards they called Smoke Freaks for 6th place and we lost our minds. The best part was sharing that moment with our BBQ family. These guys knew of our struggles, they felt our pain and they celebrated our success. But more than anything, it was a community celebration of the joy we all feel when one of us finally turns some BBQ corner.
(And then there was the time we all motorboated our p❤rk for good luck, but that’s a story for another time…)
With 15 competitions and an incredible 2-week break behind us, we’re headed into the last 10 competitions of The American Freakage Tour. And depending on how we score, every single one of these comps could count toward Team of the Year points.
As it stands right now, we’ve had nine Top-10 chicken calls, nine Top-10 brisket calls, seven Top-10 rib calls and one lonely Top-10 p❤rk call. In the mix were three First Place calls (two for Ribs and one in Chicken) and 1 RGC.
As of this writing, we’re #78 out of 2,482 in the international KCBS standings. But still, we can do better.
So as we head into the second half of our season, I’m feeling a strange blend of both urgency and zen. Urgency in that we’ve got to get points on the board with all 4 meats, especially our dear p❤rk. And zen in the sense that we just need to run our playbook and focus, because we totally got this!
I think the two-week break from competition BBQ will end up helping our game. Competition BBQ just wasn’t at the forefront of my brain, despite the 18 racks of ribs and 50 pieces of chicken that we trimmed for upcoming contests and the 1,036 pounds of charcoal we stacked up for the rest of the year. I really needed that mental break.
Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t take a vacation from BBQ altogether. In fact, we busted out Big Earl -- our Jambo Backyard -- for our Block Party After Party and served up some killer brisket burgers. I’d forgotten what a completely different cooking experience an offset is, not to mention the capacity. Plus that Jambo is badass. It just looks cool sitting in the front yard surrounded by friends and family.
And then we watched a friend of ours smoke some ribs for the first time ever, using Ugly Betty, our Pit Barrel Cooker. It’s satisfying to know that you helped turn someone on to the way of the smoke and to see them get into it. But the bigger surprise? It was literally the first time in a long while that I not only ate several ribs but actually took my time to savor them. (I’m the rib taste tester during competitions, so I’m pretty well sick of ribs after testing multiple bones off each rack week in and week out. Cry me a river, I know.)
But back to being zen…
I have to admit there was something nice about catching up on sleep, advancing a big consulting project for our client, enjoying the first tomatoes from our garden, surviving our epic neighborhood 4-day block party, doing a bunch of home improvement stuff plus squeezing in a drive-in movie and blissing out on our 14th wedding anniversary.
I’m feeling accomplished, yet refreshed. 100% ready to step back in and do what we do.
Next up: Ribberfest in Madison, IN, this weekend, where 60+ teams battle for BBQ glory. Freak ON!
Hi Pork. It’s me, Ann. I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot, and I’d like to start over.
I’ve been thinking about our relationship, and can see how I’ve hurt you.
When I said I was a bit reluctant to become the pork cook, I should have also mentioned that I was super excited to learn a new skill. In fact, I try to live my life by the motto “always be learning” -- especially in BBQ. I should have told you that.
I know there have been times when I have been less-than-enthusiastic in digging through steamy butts to find the best muscles to put in the box. I should have also let you know that that moment is actually a pure adrenaline rush. That moment when I’m pulling back your sooty foil and see your yummy, porky goodness. Delish.
It was probably pretty offensive to see me so unkempt and groggy at 4:30 in the morning when lighting your pit. You didn’t know it, but in reality, I just couldn’t wait to get the fire burning so we could embark on our approximately 4 hour, 30 minute journey together.
And Pork, perhaps worst of all… I can see how upset you probably were when we switched your pit from Fatboy to Clownfish, who joined our family back in April and was totally untested on the competition trail. I should have at least given you a heads up about the change so you could have warmed up to the idea. I totally suck for springing that surprise on you like that.
I am so sorry for all of this. The pain and suffering. The doubt, the frustration, the feelings of being unloved and unwanted. It doesn’t have to be this way…
I love you, Pork. I really do.
I’m your biggest fan, your most tenacious pitmaster and I am so Freakishly determined to transform your delicious offerings into Freakage the judges can’t turn their backs on.
I hope you can forgive me. Ideally before the Effingham Jam this weekend.
We're just back from the doubleheader Gold Ribbin’ BBQ Fest in Green Bay. What a weekend it was! It’s great to have a good cook and even better when you have one on both days, especially when you’re up against 58 other teams.
I scored my very first 1st place in Chicken on Day 1 which helped us land 9th overall. And we took 5th overall on Day 2 thanks to 3rd in Chicken, 11th in Ribs and 2nd in Brisket.
Let’s just say Pork continues to be an “opportunity” for us.
Here’s my Top 10 of all the Freakiest moments:
10. The Freak Force is real, and it was palpable before we even arrived in Green Bay
9. It’s never good to look out the window and see one of your 40-pound canopy anchors levitating from yet another freak storm
8. We were only 100 feet from a liquor store, but 1000 feet from turn-in
7. I ran into my wolf doppelgänger and her hat was WAY cooler than mine
6. I lost my wolf hat temporarily at awards when an adorable little boy borrowed it
5. We took a gamble and it paid off
4. The new Smoke Freaks lighters are battle-tested and proven to bring out the Freakage
3. I loved that chicken from the moment I first laid eyes on it
2. I was determined not to drop that 18-pound trophy when they presented it to me
1. Our pork was serenaded each morning for good luck - click here to see the video!!
Special guest blogger appearance by Mr. Freak...
We’ve always considered Brisket the Kilimanjaro of KCBS barbecue. It’s hard for a lot of cooks to conquer, not so much because it’s technically difficult, but rather because of the sheer expense involved in making the journey.
Most of us have to cook more than a few cases of those big, beautiful, budget-busting slabs of beef before we even get a glimpse of the summit. And that costs a crapload of money, even if you’re cooking CABs from Costco.
Fortunately we found a shortcut early this year that helped us make our run at the top of the mountain. We’re not there yet, but we got pretty close last weekend at Sam’s Club with a 178-point-whatever, having missed our first 180 by a tenderness point.
The shortcut? It’s called Mystery Beef.
This all started at our first comp of the year, CCS Fest in Indy. After a long winter off, we came out guns blazing with strong calls in Chicken, Ribs and Pork. But we finished in the bottom half of the pack overall, thanks to terrible Brisket that deserved every one of the 5s it got at the judges table.
We made the bonehead move of trying a hot new ingredient without even doing a test cook. Matter of fact, we didn’t even taste it before Mr. Freak went injecting that stuff into a $180 Wagyu brisket.
It turned out to be a lethal mistake, but from the ashes of that 139.92 box of horrors, Mystery Beef was born.
What is Mystery Beef?
Don’t ask Mr. Freak, he doesn’t know. And Ms. Freak doesn’t know either. All we know is the stuff evidently works pretty well on Brisket, and it was first perfected the night before Day 2 of Masters in May, where we RGCed thanks, in part, to the magical qualities of Mystery Beef.
Masters Day 1 had been pretty ugly for us, and Brisket had again proven to be our nemesis. We were still tuning our recipe in real-time on competition day, and it bit us in the ass AGAIN!
Confident the problem had something to do with the fancy new injection, Ms. Freak decided to do something about it. She changed the formula of the injection mix, trying something completely different than prescribed on the package. The end result: Smoke Freaks Full-Strength Beef mix.
Meanwhile, Mr. Freak had his own ideas, so he doctored the base injection as supplied by Ms. Freak, not knowing that she had already thrown the original recipe out the window.
By the time we pumped the new concoction into our Day 2 SRF Black Label, we realized neither of us had any idea what was actually in the stuff.
Mr. Freak was pretty bent out of shape about it, but Ms. Freak remained sanguine and simply labeled the remaining injection “??? Beef ???”
A few hours later we were driving home, smiling ear-to-ear the way BBQ teams do after a killer day. We’d not only RGCed, but we got a nice call in Brisket -- our first of the year!
Mr. Freak tried to take credit for fixing the brisket injection. And so did Ms. Freak.
That’s when we realized, not only did we not know what Mystery Beef is, neither of us knew exactly what we did to make it. So we spent the rest of the drive back-tracking every step until we were each pretty sure we’d figured out our respective parts of the formula.
I’d tell you what goes into my half of the injection, but Ms. Freak doesn’t even know that secret. Some things are best left a Mystery, and as long as our Brisket recipe is working, that’s what it will remain.
Next stop: Gold Ribbin’ BBQ Fest in Green Bay, our 4th double-header of the season. Freak ON!
We just wrapped up a much needed week off from the BBQ trail. The highlight of our week “off” was a 3-way pork test where we went back to basics for inspiration.
Pork has been our nemesis all year, and despite working on it constantly, we just haven’t been able to turn things around in the judges’ tent. Oh what I would give for my first pork call! But like the song goes, “you can’t always get what you want.” And true to the song, I guess I did get what I needed - some pork help from our BBQ family.
Yep, these are the folks that we go up against each weekend, and they’re also the same people who would lend you a hand and give you the shirt off their back. Their advice was much appreciated and it gave us the inspiration to do yet another test cook, this time with simplification in mind.
We tested our go-to pork recipe (T1) against an early 2017 recipe (T3) that earned us our only pork award of the year … and a new recipe (T2) created just this week. While we were at it, we tried our hand at some new trimming methods that seem promising and way more efficient.
(Truth be told, I’m feeling some pressure to get some pork points on the board as we head into our first appearance at the Qualifiers for the Sam’s Club National BBQ Tour. The top 6 teams advance to Regionals so we really need pork to be working for us vs. crushing our dreams.
We thought T2 was the clear winner on appearance, taste and tenderness. By a lot. The funny thing is all aspects of the recipe - trimming, injection, rubbing, wrapping, carving, saucing and boxing -- are super simple.
So it was decided, we’ll put it to the test at Sam’s Club this weekend!
Now we just gotta nail our entire cook, starting now.
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!
I never dreamed of being the pork cook, but I am always up for a new challenge. So it seemed like the perfect time to take on another meat in our quest for BBQ glory. I’ve been our chicken cook since last July so adding pork gives me control of half our cook, which makes sense, as Mr. Freak and I have always been equal partners.
But this is pork. I’ll admit that meat feels a little daunting since it’s such a different cook. With chicken, each thigh is an individual piece that may or may not go into the turn-in box. We cook plenty of extras, so if I screw up a thigh or two or four, I’ve still got plenty to consider for boxing. Pork is different. It’s a big meat, so it takes longer to cook, meaning there’s more effort to make sure everything runs smoothly.
And that big hunk of meat consists of a bunch of different muscles, which all cook differently. Timing is everything in the tenderness game. And for me, boxing pork is intrinsically more difficult, because you may have one type of pork meat to box with, or two, or three if you’re lucky. And it changes from cook to cook.
Fortunately, I don’t need to learn a new pit. We’re already using Clownfish, our newest Hunsaker Smokers cooking machine for chicken, so I’ve got that down. Our plan is to continue to use Clownfish for pork in the early morning and then for chicken when pork comes off. That leaves Redrum and Pam for the rib and brisket cooks, respectively. It’s a massive advantage to be able to have three different pits running at three different temperatures as needed.
To prepare for this weekend’s doubleheader competition, we did a two-variate A/B test, consisting of 4 separate butt sections. We sampled a lot of pork that day, focusing primarily on taste. I won’t give away all the juicy details, but will say that we’re feeling good about the flavor profile we landed on. We hope the judges agree as they Taste the Freakage.
And as stubborn as I am to do the cook independently, I can’t deny the comfort that comes from having Mr. Freak as my pork mentor. We got this!
We’ll be putting Operation Pork to the test this weekend in Westmont, IL at the “Red, White & BBQ” competition in Ty Warner Park. Freak ON!
Smoke Freaks had a wild ride at our first appearance at the Masters in May doubleheader last weekend. We ended up 45th out of 56 teams on Day 1 -- aka totally smoked. We were disappointed, upset, distressed and pretty shaken up.
But somehow, we had to shake it off to have any chance of a good cook on Day 2. It took a lot of serious focus but we managed to pull it off. We danced and howled our way to the Reserve Grand Championship on Day 2 and our very first 1st place award (Ribs)!!
Here's what I learned from that experience:
10. Lock in 4WD before you drag an 8,000 pound trailer into the mud
9. The BBQ family takes care of each other
8. Get to "Walking Biscuits & Gravy" early
7. Mary makes the best Bloody Marys
6. Don't be downwind when Mr. Freak applies the Freakage Rub
5. Darren is the nicest guy in BBQ
4. The Matrix of Freakage works
3. Ask for advice and you'll probably get it
2. Be resilient no matter how badly you get smoked
1. Never give up on the box
We'll be back on the BBQ trail Memorial Day weekend at the "Red, White & BBQ" Competition in Westmont, IL. Until then, Freak ON!
There you have it -- the words that no BBQ competition team ever wants to see on a comment card. BURN!
How did this happen? What could we have done differently? And most importantly, what have we learned?
It all started 3 weeks ago at our first of 25 competitions this year, CCS Fest in Indianapolis.
After a long off-season, we were finally back on the BBQ trail, cooking and reuniting with our BBQ family. Despite a nagging feeling that we had forgotten something, everything was going well.
On cook day, the weather was still a little windy, but nothing our pits from Hunsaker Smokers couldn’t handle. The sun was coming out and it turned into a lovely crisp spring day. And we had a good cook. Things fell into place, and we worked well together as a team. It felt good to be back.
And then finally, it’s time for awards. Such anticipation… HERE WE GO! Chicken. 9th place. Alright, we’re off to a good start. 6th place ribs, also nice. Ribs have always been our specialty, and we were pretty sure we’d placed. And then pork. Smoke Freaks for 7th place!!
That means 3 of 3 calls, a fantastic place to be sitting in, especially for your first cook of the season! People around us were starting to chatter and consider the possibilities… and for a very brief moment, I allowed my brain to drift over into the land of BBQ glory. BUT WAIT. We knew something no one else knew … our brisket was a fail.
(And when I say “fail,” I mean it sucked. The slices were like leather, so imagine the fun I had boxing up an anemic looking collection of burnt ends.)
But maybe, just maybe, by some miracle, we hit 11th in brisket and that might be good enough for something, right? NOPE. 42nd in brisket. Out of 45 teams. That dragged our overall score from top-3 to 25th. OUCH.
When the winners were announced, everyone around us was perplexed, asking how we managed to get 3 good calls but miss the overall top-10?
Well, this comment card sums it up pretty well...
We used our laminator to preserve that comment card, which memorializes the worst score we’ve ever received. It now hangs on the wall of the Wolf Wagon. Between that haunting reminder and our own Freaky efforts to diagnose and fix our our brisket problem, I can promise you we will never let that happen again.
What else did we learn? Work hard and play to win, but never take yourself too seriously. Own your mistakes and move on. Be humble. Stay Freaky.
We’re putting those lessons to the test this weekend at the Great Wisconsin Tune-Up in Manawa, WI. Freak ON!
Ann is Co-Founder & Head Cook for Smoke Freaks ... and she's fallen head over heels in love with Pork.