In the South, the word "barbecue" is a noun, as in "Let's eat some barbecue." But up here, it's a verb, as in, "Let's barbecue!" And as we learned at this summer's Championships of New England Barbecue, we're doing it better than ever these days.
I'm inside the judges' tent at the Harpoon Championships of New England Barbecue in Windsor, Vermont, watching carefully as Frank Plankey, a heavyset man with a cheerful face sporting a baseball cap covered in collector pins, picks up a handful of shredded pork and studiously examines its coloring. Satisfied, he closes his eyes and holds the chunk up to his nose, inhaling audibly. He inhales again, then pops it in his mouth before scribbling numbers on a score card. It is the first time I've ever seen anyone regard the bouquet of a hunk of pork, but that's what Plankey and 48 other certified judges are here to do, to evaluate the culinary skills of 42 teams that are part of the fast-growing sport of competitive barbecue. This late-July fest is a major event for the New England circuit and will end with the crowning of the Team of the Year. It will also draw a record 6,000 spectators to the Harpoon Brewery over the course of two days.
Barbecue competitions are nothing new in the South, Midwest, or West, but up here they didn't catch on until the early 1990s, when a group of amateur cooks, mostly in Massachusetts, put together a friendly competition called the Pig and Pepper. The event spawned copycats and eventually an organization of teams was formed, now called the New England Barbecue Society. In 2001, Harpoon Brewery sponsored the first regional competition and since then, with help from various marketing efforts and the pastime's increasing exposure on television outlets like the Food Network, the season has grown to a dozen competitions in New England and membership has skyrocketed to 350 teams. Not bad for a sport that didn't exist here 20 years ago. One look around the festival and it's easy to see actually to smell and to hear the draw. The air is thick with hickory smoke and blues music; aging hippies, leather-clad bikers, 20-something couples in madras shorts, and entire families (including their dogs) wander the grounds munching on pulled-pork sandwiches and drinking Harpoon. Teams are camped out across the grounds with enormous rigs made up of smokers, kitchen equipment, RVs, and tents. Some teams, like Malden's I Smell Smoke!!!, are competition veterans that hit 20 contests each season and have 12 or more years of experience, while others, like the Pokey Smokers, a husband-and-wife team from Stow, have little more than a year of practice.
They all arrived Friday night and stayed up late tending their smokers, which were filled with entries for Saturday's barbecue categories (chicken, ribs, pork butt, and beef brisket). A separate competition will take place Sunday for grilling, where most entries are prepared over open fires, unlike traditional barbecuing, which requires longer cooking time over very low, indirect heat. Winners will earn prize money and bragging rights. Here, they compete against the best, and this year, that means teams from Kansas City and Chicago as well as a few professional chefs, like Tremont 647's Andy Husbands and his team, iQue.9
Despite the pressure, say Pokey Smokers Dan and Jori Foster, this is a friendly competition. "Everyone helps each other," says Dan. "Some of the really experienced teams are so good that they don't mind teaching us a few things." The older teams even play host throughout the weekend. On Saturday night, after a long day of competition, I Smell Smoke!!! sets up an outdoor projector to show a Cheech and Chong film, while iQue dishes up collard greens and fried chicken for the other teams.
Kevin Flannery, the owner of Concord catering company Slowpokes Barbecue (slowpokesbbq.com), was one of the original New England Barbecue Society founders and has enjoyed watching the sport grow. Everyone gets hooked for the same reason, he says. "It doesn't matter how much you spend, who you are, or if you have a name. You can come with your little backyard cooker, make good barbecue, and you can win."
And he's right. At the end of day one, the husband-and-wife Pokey Smokers, with only six competitions under their belt, win first prize in the toughest category of the weekend: beef brisket. The grand champion in Saturday's contest is Lunchmeat, made up of two couples from Rockland and Worcester. Transformer Barbecue, which places well in Sunday's chef's choice and sausage categories, takes home the grand-champion trophy for grilling. But it's veteran team I Smell Smoke!!! that wins the New England Barbecue Society Team of the Year trophy.
I stop by to congratulate them as they pack up to head home and ask if they have a secret they can share. One of their many fans (and a backup team member), Pat Brogdon sums up their weekend. "The secret to cooking good barbecue is to have fun and enjoy yourself," he says. "That's why we're all here." Well, that, and the good eats.
Erin Byers Murray is a freelance writer in Brighton. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.