Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Lake Michigan Tour continues......

So, Lowell was finished, we packed up most of our stuff Saturday afternoon, loaded the truck almost completely, and decided to take a break, have some dinner, relax, and check out the fireworks later that night. Fortunately, Lowell is one of the rare events to have showers available to contestants, and they were kind enough to leave them open Saturday evening, so we were able to clean up a bit. Something one can only truly appreciate if you've gone through a whole weekend of bbq competition, and aren't the owner of a fancy trailer or motor home equipped with a shower! As an aside, we've actually kind of solved that problem now. Our little Coleman instant water heater has a shower hose available, and we now are able to use it, and a little porta-potty enclosure we bought for obvious other purposes to put up a portable shower stall at these events. We first tested it in Iron Mountain, MI....but...I'm getting ahead of myself!

Anyway, the fireworks were spectacular. For a reletively small village, Lowell does a GREAT job with these! Sunday morning, we finished packing, and around one or so, we were on the road to Escanaba, in the gorgeous Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We made our way up MI-131, through Grand Rapids, Cedar Springs, Big Rapids, Reed City, jogging east through Cadillac, Lake City, and Houghton Lake, finally catching I-75 north near Roscommon.

Once on I-75, a north/south interstate that runs from the UP on its northernmost end, all the way through to south Florida, we continued north, through Indian River, to Mackinaw, over the 4 mile long Mackinaw bridge to St. Ignace, and finally jogged west toward Escanaba, where we would stay Sunday through Wednesday night with my high school freinds, Mary and Gary. (more on them later)

The reason I go into such detail on the cities we passed through on our journey, is that many of them have nostalgic meaning to me. Although I've lived in the greater Chicago area since my release from the US Navy in 1982, I was born and raised in Dearborn, MI. And spent a lot of time as a kid travelling through Michigan. I caught my very first fish, 2 big bluegills and a 13 1/2" smallmouth bass, on Lake Missaukee in Lake City. As a small kid, my mom used to take us to a "resort" in Indian River, run by a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Brunk every summer.  I scattered her ashes near the Cross in the Woods, near that location after she lost her battle with breast cancer, and lit a candle for her in the chapel there.
And, as a Boy Scout, my troop went to Roscommon every summer for our annual canoe trip on the Au Sable river.

So this clearly is a very nostalgic (as well as very beautiful) drive for me, bringing many memories back, and making me feel as though I was really home again!

Anyway, we arrived Sunday evening about 9 PM  at my freinds, Gary and Mary Rogers Escanaba home. I went to high school with them many years ago, and we hadn't seen each other in probably 25 years, but seeing them again was like it had been yesterday. We just started talking and sharing stories as though there had never been a gap! We were their guests for the next few days, managing to work in some sightseeing, some partying, and some dang fine salmon fishing! We brought in 5 between the 4 of us on Wednesday, the largest being 18-20 lbs. or so!

Thursday afternoon, we made the hour drive to Iron Mountain and checked in for the UP Hog Wild event.

Setting up Thursday made Friday a breeze! Unlike many teams, we do all our trimming onsite. I realize many have told us that doing it in advance makes life easier, but something about doing it on site kind of helps get me "in the zone". So, once our inspectors ok'd our meat, all snug in it's factory cryo wrapper, I started trimming, removing almost all outer fat from the pork butts (where there's fat there will be no bark), trimming up the brisket (only did one), the ribs (five slabs, separating tips from St. Louis spares) and trimming up the chicken. All of which took just under 2 hours. Then I mixed up our pork and rib injections, tossed them in the cooler, and took a little break, wandering around to see who had arrived since the night before.

We saw many old freinds, and made some new ones, as usually happens at these events. As I may have mentioned before, the Barbecue community is by a large an extended family of sorts. Most everyone would do just about anything to help another, despite the rivalries that can't help but exist in such a competitive environment. The atmosphere is not unlike a really big family reunion! And everyone shares the same passion for bbq, no matter if you spell it barbeque, barbecue, Bar-B-Q, etc.

I had some particularly large pork butts this time (9.5 and 12 lbs respectively), so instead of putting them on at 6PM, as I usually would do, I had them on as soon as the cooks meeting (3PM) was over. At that point, we had a little dinner, and headed out on the "shot fairy" rounds.

We'd been concerned about our freinds Ron and Amy, of Captain Ron's Brew-n-Que, because we'd heard they had trailer trouble just north of Milwaukee, but were happy to see that they had made it in around 6 PM, sporting 2 new trailer leaf springs, and a couple new tires. They were a little behind, but caught up quickly to schedule.

We finally returned from our Friday evening "rounds" about 1:30 AM, to find the pork running a little low, at around 195 degrees. I tweaked the vents a bit and we called it a night.

At about 6 AM, I got up, checked temp, and found it to be holding at around 200...not quite as high as I'd have liked, but still cruising along. Tweaked the vents a bit more, and began the process of cooking everything else. At about 12:20, our freinds (and hosts) Gary and Mary arrived with a freind as we were prepping our rib box, and talked with us through rib and pork turn in. They followed Diane to the turn in area, and tried to peek in the best they were able to see what was going on in the judging tent. They then took a walk around the team area to see how other teams were coping with turn-in while we were readying our brisket. Once we had that turned in, they headed back toward Escanaba, as they were expecting company for a "celebration party" for our success, which at the time was not really determined.

Turn ins done, we straightened up and started putting things away, and grabbed a quick shower before awards so we didn't both look like wet rats! When we left the cooks area, and entered the grounds where the awards ceremony was being held, we encountered a rather overzealous security officer, who not only was not allowing any alcohol onto the field (remember now, cooks paid 200-225$ to cook this contest) They were also making folks with unopened soft drinks (iced tea, pop, etc.) turn around and take them out.

Now, the first time we walked in, we had our pup and mascot, Ember with us, and Barnelia Fife said nothing about her, just the beer we we returned to a freinds site and left our beverages behind. On returning, she NOW said that our Ember would not be allowed either, instead of simply having said something earlier. At this point, I might have become a bit belligerent, but she really could have said someting before!

Chris, the organizer and ringmaster of the BBQ contest smoothed things over and made it clear to Barnelia that Ember was our mascot, and would be on the field and supervised at all times. (She will only heed natures call when she knows it's ok, and wouldn't do anything in a crowded public place anyway!)

Turned out it was a good thing, as we were called to the stage for 1st place pork (our first EVER first place in any category) and 6th place brisket! Very high marks against some of the esteemed company we were cooking with!

Floating on air, we went back to our site after the awards ceremony and finished packing up. Upon returning to Gary and Mary's place in Escanaba, we put out our still hot leftovers (held in a Carlisle food holding unit) for the folks at the party. Seemed everyone enjoyed it all immensely, even the meats that didn't get calls!

Party finally died out about 4AM, and so did we!

Sunday, we awoke not nearly as late as we'd have liked, had breakfast, said goodbye to all the revelers, and our great hosts, and at about 2PM we headed first west out of Escanaba, then south through Wisconsin and make our way home.

So....11 days on the road, 2 contests, 3 calls, one storm/microburst, a great fishing trip, and a reunion with old freinds! Wow....what a vacation, and what a great time!

Now it's time for a break! We have a party to cater on 8/7, and a party to attend, seeing Jimmy Buffett at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, IL on 8/14. May be a neighborhood block party later in August, and September 3-4, we'll be heading to Milwaukee to load up the smokers again!

Life is truly good!

You can see a slideshow here....

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A sunny weekend...well, almost!

So things went more or less ok in Lowell, once all the drama of getting there was behind us.

We were cruising along ok...I wasn't really happy with the parsley and lettuce we brought, lets just say it didn't travel well. But we managed to put together 4 " not godawful" boxes, well, I thought we did.

Chicken was, all in all, not a very good entry for us.  But there were bright spots. Usually, we're somewhere near the bottom of the barrel. We kind of swim upstream, given that the common rule is thighs rule. We are silly enough to believe that chicken breast can score. So far, we've only been right once out of 12 times...but this wasn't all bad....we had a 999, and a 988 score....along with an 877, a 668, a 688, and a 767. For those that are not familiar, the first number is for appearance of the entry, second is for taste, and third is texture.  Appearance is worth 1/2 of what taste is, taste is worth half of what texture is. (per KCBS rules) Anyway, we were 13 of 30...not as bad as usual! At least we were top half!

Ribs were not what I'd hoped, as I'd had trouble maintaining a constant temp of around 225. Go much higher and you don't get exactly what one would like, but when I tasted them, I thought we had a decent shot at some kind of call. We put together a pretty nice box. (appearance scores 888886.....6?...WTF?) Thing was....right after we finished the box, this glorious sunny, hot, day...the day the weather-guessers said would have NO CHANCE of any sort of shower, a freak storm blew up out of nowhere. All of a sudden, we had sideways rain, and winds that must have run up to 50-60 mph! One team actually lost thier ribs to the wind, another lost thier of those pole houses they sell at the warehouse stores. We had some losses, some of our stuff blew away, some got soaked and ruined. We had several tree limbs fell in our sauce pots, but we were already finished with them, (the sauces) so no huge loss. Most importantly, nobody was hurt!

Something I have to mention is the assistance that Tom and Pam Bagby and thier freind, gave us, keeping our EZ-UP from blowing away during that little  "micro-burst". When the rain and wind started, Diane was semi-panicked, with memories of last years Elk Grove contest dancing in her head.Tom and another gentlemen, who were across from us when all hell broke loose, were kind enough to help us prevent the destruction of our canopy. For thier efforts, we awarded them with as much food as they wanted, and Tom at least, stayed around visiting for a while while his lovely wife Pam went to make sure their classic VW convertible was protected from the elements. He asked lots of questions about what we cooked, how we cooked it, etc....all the while we were doing pork, and then brisket, but we were happy to talk with him and share a few samples, because, as well told them, they were more than just visitors now, they were truly freinds!

We finished up with pork, in 5th place, and brisket in 16th, a 17th place finish overall. But, if nothing else, we were top 5 in both of our 2 comps this year in pork, so we must be doing something right! We stayed overnight Saturday, and enjoyed Lowell's wonderful fireworks show, and to Escanaba, on the second leg of the circle Lake Michigan tour!

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Ride to Lowell

Well, Nothing it seems, is ever easy! Half way through Indiana, we were slowed quite a bit by a horrendous accident. A semi on the eastbound side apparently had run abruptly into a large road contruction vehicle. The cab of the semi was in pretty much a total state of destruction! Said a prayer for that guy!

 Then, when we made a pit stop at the first rest stop in Michigan, I noticed the trailer had lost the passenger side wheel bearing cover, resulting is something resembling one of those spatter paint projects from years ago. Knowing we couldn't go much farther without risk of a bearing meltdown, we set about finding a store that sold Wheel bearing caps (and maybe also wheel bearings themselves). We finally found a store called Tractor Supply, kind of like a Farm and Fleet type place that had both. I bought 2 sets of bearings, a can of grease, a dozen or so cotter pins, and some cleaning supplies . I then pulled the wheel in the parking lot, repacked the bearings (an inspection showed they were still ok although there were traces of some of the grease overheating) and we were on our way again, finally making it into Lowell at about 7:30, about 3-4 hours later than we'd hoped. But at least now we have spare parts!
It was hot, muggy, and buggy, but we got set up and got the AC going ...and blew a fuse! Oh well, a trip to the nearest Meijer store for lots of replacement fuses, and some badly needed water.

Today was much better.  We finished setting up, and I began working on prepping our meat. As of 9:15, all but chicken is prepped, the butts are in and holding at 220 degrees nicely, and we're about to go on the rounds of the "shot fairy". At our first contest, 2 years ago, my wife Diane began taking shots of an apple pie flavored beverage we make, as a way to introduce herself to folks. At the time, I was too intensely into what I was doing, and too new at it, to join her, but now, I go when I'm able.

This is always the interesting night. Jitters about how things will go, and worries about what might go wrong often combine with the fun of meeting old freinds, making new ones, and, as the night goes on, that sweet smell of food cooking over sweet blue smoke.

Nothing like it!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Does it HAVE to be this hot?!?!?!?! it is, the day before we embark on a "circle Lake Michigan" BBQ tour, it's 7 AM and already nearing 90 degrees! Should make packing up all the more special!

We leave tomorrow for Lowell, Michigan, a really great little town that wakes up for a weekend and plays host to thousands for thier Riverwalk festival. Last year was their first effort at doing a BBQ contest, and they did a great job! We are really looking forward to this years event, and hope we can improve our scores from last year, (11th of 21 overall, 3rd ribs, 6th brisket) Our freinds the Smokin Scotsmen took the grand championship, and we couldn't have been happier for them.

So anyway, now it's this year. The thermometer is spiking, and it looks as though we'll be dodging the raindrops today and tomorrow, but we're still pretty psyched!

Now, I should say, there is a HUGE contest this same weekend, and it's closer to us, in Shannon IL. The "Field of Dreams" as it's called it one of the larger and more highly rated comps going. And word has it this may be it's last year, as the folks largely responsible for it, Mike and Theresa Lake, are talking retirement to warmer climes. If that happens, we'll miss them dearly, as they are the nicest folks you'd ever want to meet, and Mike, as the acting president of KCBS, is, to us anyway, kind of the face of barbecue. But Lowell is more on our route to what follows, the UP Hog Wild competition in Kingsford, Michigan (UP der eh?)
So we will forgo the annual spectacular thunderstorms, gale force winds, etc of Shannon in favor of the hopefully more hospitible climes of my home state of Michigan! I'll be keeping an eye out for Shannon results though. Best of luck to all our freinds competing there!

Well, enough chatter, it's time to load the trailer and hit the Restaurant Depot! Updates to follow.......