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June 23, 2010   Email to Friend 

GRILL OF VICTORY: Alabama BBQ Teams Smoke The Competition
By Darryal Ray

Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson's BBQ in Decatur has built a world-wide reputation and appears frequently on "Today" and the Food Network.
It's a game of chicken -- and ribs and rubs and butts and briskets.

It's also a game of secrets, sauces and seasonings, a contest where teams with rib-tickling monikers like Jiggy Piggy, Wild Bunch Butt Burners and South Pork turn up the heat at least two weekends a month.

This is the world of competition barbecue, a fast-growing sport where the backyard burger meister at this Fourth of July's cookout could very well be next month's world champion pit master -- or vice versa.

"You've got to learn to lose to be successful in this sport," says John Swift of the Wild Bunch as he tends the wood fire he lit almost 12 hours earlier. "We've seen the top team in the nation win a contest one weekend and finish dead last the next."

Yet, when the hickory smoke clears most weekends, Alabama teams are usually near the top of the heap in each of the four contest categories -- chicken, ribs, pork butts and beef briskets.

Swift and his wife Kathy, who drive a customized Peterbilt motorhome from their home in Atmore to almost 30 contests a year, have raked in at least five grand championships in nine years of competition. As of June 7, they ranked 25th out of almost 2,500 teams in the Kansas City Barbecue Society's (KCBS) overall Team of the Year rankings.

Scott and Suzanne Burton, the husband-wife South Pork team from Madison, have won eight grand championships in seven years, and Jiggy Piggy pit partners Steve Blake and Bob Fite of Decatur count at least a dozen grand championships and as many reserve grand championships since teaming in 2002. On June 7, South Pork ranked 27th in the Team of the Year standings; Jiggy Piggy was 57th.

The king of the 'cue, of course, is Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson's BBQ restaurant in Decatur.

Lilly captured so many major awards (10 world championships among them) since taking to the competition trail in 1997 that he frequently appears on the Today Show, the Food Network, The Learning Channel's BBQ Pitmasters and, in 2009, captured the National Barbecue Association's Book of the Year Award with Big Bob Gibson's BBQ Book (Clarkson Potter, $24.99).

In his third year as national spokesperson for Kingsford Charcoal, Lilly stays so busy nowadays that he only has enough time to compete twice a year. When he is at home, he can usually be found in the kitchen of the 85-year-old restaurant's Sixth Avenue location, a place where chefs from Denmark, Switzerland and Italy have labored just to learn Lilly's "low-and-slow" cooking secrets.

"Doing only two competitions a year puts me at a disadvantage because trends change, tastes change and what the competitors are doing changes," said Lilly. "But I rely on great friends like Bob and Steve at Jiggy Piggy to find out what's happening on the circuit."

The KCBS, the sanctioning body for nearly 300 barbecue contests around the U.S., lists 40 professional teams from Alabama on its website registry, but Lilly estimates there are "hundreds" of Alabama teams. The state even has its own "barbecue trail" with numerous events of its own as part of an effort of the Alabama Bureau of Tourism.

"Competition barbecue is pretty significant in Alabama," said Guy Hall, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation's Pork and Poultry Divisions. "The South is known for its barbecue, and the professional teams we have in Alabama are among the best. These teams know how to get the most out of their pork and chicken."

The teams, stretching as far north as Athens and as far south as Bay Minette, are mostly husband-wife duos or buddies who were drawn to the sport ... well, like a pitmaster to a flame.

Most teams decide to "turn pro" after unexpected wins as amateurs in the Backyard Division at a city festival or similar event. For the Swifts, it was a fourth-place finish in the chicken category in Slidell, La. "I looked at Kathy and I said, 'There's nothing to this! Let's do this again!'" said John Swift.

Contestants often describe competition barbecue as a giant tailgate party without the football game. "There's just something about being around a fire with good food and lots of people," said Scott Burton.

But once the fires are lit, the competitiveness fills the air like thick hickory smoke. With some teams shelling out anywhere from $500 to $10,000 in contest expenses on some outings, the tension can run high. Plus, the bigger events like Memphis in May (not a KCBS event) pay out more than $110,000 to winners.

Sleek, customized smokers can run as high as $25,000, but most contestants will say it's not the cooker that makes a difference -- it's the cook.

Scott Burton keeps a down-to-the-minute timetable beside his cookers, noting everything from general weather conditions to when the pork comes off and the chicken goes on. "I record if I use more wood. If I did well in a contest, I want to know if it was raining -- did the humidity factor into it?" he said.

The Burtons will spend 90 minutes preparing the chicken, using tweezers and cotton-tipped swabs to meticulously clean the thighs before putting them into the smoker. John Swift will spend a full day shopping for the best ribs possible; Bob Fite will spend two days shopping. All will share some of their secrets with a competitor, but not everything.

"I'll help somebody who's struggling, but I won't share enough for them to beat us," said John Swift.

The judging is a blind process with points awarded to the 10,000th of a point for taste, appearance and texture. Six KCBS-certified judges judge each entry. That means a single team's entry will go before 24 different judges by contest's end. The judges, who must attend a class to learn the standards by which to judge, must also take an oath to "objectively and subjectively evaluate each barbecue meat that is presented to my eyes, my nose, my hands and my palate."

What each judge is looking for is anyone's guess -- and it could vary widely between events.

"When a judge tastes your food in competition, in two bites you have to absolutely blow his or her mind," said Lilly. "So what I do is take the flavors that we have here at the restaurant every day and amplify them into a super rich, extraordinary experience in two bites. In competition, you want to think what the average judge likes and what the average judge is used to. But you've got to push all the limits."

As a result, Steve Blake says competition barbecue is usually sweeter or spicier than most people want. "It may sound funny, but judges will say, 'That's a good-eating rib, but it's not going to win," said Blake.

"Probably more times than not, people get dinged for having mush and no texture," said Fite. "There's a fine line between being cooked properly and being overcooked or undercooked. At some point, you're chasing a pork chop into oblivion."

In an effort to stay abreast of what the judges want, the Jiggy Piggy duo is usually first in line whenever a frequent winner holds a barbecue cooking class. "There's no way you can't go," said Fite. "If nothing else, it validates what you're doing. When somebody's winning and you think, 'I'd like to know what he does.' For $500, if he wants to show you, you've got to look."

Lilly is a bit more philosophic. "All I can do at a barbecue contest is put out phenomenal BBQ - that's all I can control. I can't control the judging," he said.

Kathy Swift, who says she doesn't even eat barbecue but is a critical part of the Wild Bunch's success, has also learned to keep it all in perspective.

"You never know what kind of judges you are going to get or what flavor they want," she said. "When you cook as much as we do, you know if it's good or bad. If you know your food is excellent and you get a bad score, it's hard to smile. You get mad for about 10 minutes then you get over it and say, 'Oh well, there's always next week.'"

For more information about competition barbecue, visit bamabbqtrail.com and www.kcbs.us. Chris Lilly is scheduled to appear on Fox Network's "Fox and Friends" morning show on July 4. To order "Big Bob Gibson's BBQ Book", visit www.BigBobGibsonBBQ.com or call (256) 350-6969.

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