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....

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