Saturday, June 08, 2013

In Smoke We Trust

We were setting up for a project with a gang that had been together many times. The clients were doing their thing, the techs theirs, each working in their own space and nodding politely to one other. My job, as usual, was bridging the divide between the two. As part of my rambling small talk, I asked one of the techs named Chris how his side business was going. He mentioned that the coming weekend would have him and his partners working their biggest event to date. One of the clients politely inquired over her shoulder as to the type of business they had. When Chris told her, conversation stopped. All turned to him, and they started swapping stories and tricks; it was all I could do to get us back on track. And the reason I lost control? Chis and his mates have a team that competes in professional BBQ.

BBQ is one culinary arena that inspires passion like no other; Mitch and Chris can wax philosophically about it for hours. Mitch says it best: "My whole life I was under the impression that BBQ was burgers, chicken, or even ribs drenched in sauce, then abused over super high heat on a propane grill. Never knew it was the exact opposite: taking your time, an all-day event, babysitting a hunk of meat in a smoke filled vessel, basting it until it becomes very tender, as it slowly caramelizes. Really putting some love into it. Very few things in life are worth that amount of time." Mind you, that's not his wife he's talking about, but a pork butt.

While Mitch got hooked at a shack in Atlanta called Daddy D's, Chris' epiphany was in 2009. "I met a guy named Tom Bera of Philly Blind Pig BBQ. Got a glimpse of his operation and I was hooked. Within the next year I bought a basic smoker from Home Depot and started learning. In 2011 we started competing in sanctioned events, and in 2012 I bought a tow behind Meadow Creek Barbecue TS250 smoker with a BBQ 42 Chicken cooker mounted on the front." Your daddy's Weber this is not.

Both guys have put some serious money and time into it, spending much of their off hours perfecting their technique, going to competitions, and more recently, selling their edible art at festivals. Their team, Zombie BBQ, won a bunch of awards over the past year or so, including 3rd in ribs at Smoke in the Valley in Green Lane, PA, 4th in brisket and 5th in pork at the New Holland Summerfest in New Holland, PA, and 4th in pork at Pork in the Park in Salisbury, MD.

Though the prize money does help offset an expensive hobby, competing isn't really about winning. Says Chris, "Everyone is really nice and willing to give you tips, tricks. It's a very friendly and fun environment. Every competition is like a mini vacation for us." However, it's a tiring vacation: "We start smoking around 8 pm on a Friday and run the pit all night until around 12 pm on Saturday. Since I usually have to feed the fire of my smoker ever hour or so, I don't get much sleep."

Each has their favorites. For Mitch, "Good brisket burnt ends can make your knees buckle, and great ribs are just a beautiful thing." Chris is a big brisket fan too, but has a few other specialties: "Something that I've been making lately for friends and family is pulled pork and Sriracha infused coleslaw egg rolls with hot pepper buffalo cheese, served with an oriental style BBQ sauce." No, you can't have his address.

In the documentary "American Smoke" that Mitch is making about the world of grillers, he opens the trailer with a shot of a bearded fellow competitor. Off camera Mitch asks, "Is barbequing better than sex?" The man gives a short laugh and the music starts. Some might think that laugh is there because the answer is that nothing could be better than carnal pleasures. But those in the know know better. The guy laughed for the simple reason that to many it's a rhetorical question. For them, the question isn't which position do you prefer, but do you like your ribs wet or dry. For them, BBQ and sex are merely two flavors of the same thing; it's just a matter of what produces the smoke.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hopes the guys invite him over for lunch. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

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