Ask a southerner to describe barbecue and you’ll likely hear it called comfort food. They’ll label it a party, centered around a secret family rub or sauce or point to a joint just down the road serving simple, honest food. Press them to describe the food itself and the answer will be as varied as the states that comprise Dixie. You’ll hear about spare ribs covered in a glossy, sticky-sweet sauce in Kansas; dry rubbed, sliced brisket in Texas; vinegar-based, biting sauce covering pulled pork on a bun in the Carolinas. Long Island pitmasters are changing the idea of a barbecue in these parts through the competition circuit. Smoked hunks of pork butt, racks of ribs and dozens of chicken thighs are replacing grilled burgers and franks. It’s not fast and it’s not easy, but it may just be the best damn thing you put in your mouth this summer.
Inside the BBQ Brethren 8 1/2 x 15-foot trailer Phil Rizzardi and his teammate Scott Owitz take turns prepping chicken and brisket. While one works the other looks on from a nearby stool because there isn’t enough room for both of them at the counter, which is cluttered with all the accouterments of a meat rub: Opened containers of brown sugar and spices and commercial mixes with Emeril Lagasse’s face on the label. “You could make your own, but most of the commercial ones have the same stuff in there so it’s a time saver,” Owitz said. Behind them is a fridge and restaurant-style stainless steel sink, next to which is a futon that’s seen better days. The white walls are covered with stickers and ribbons from previous competitions and the whole trailer serves as a rolling trophy case, a testament to previous successes.
They are prepping for WilliePallooza, the two-day long competition named after local barbecue guru Willie Breakstone. For Rizzardi it represents the culmination of weeks of legwork: Making and returning calls, responding to e-mails, coordinating vendors, permits and teams from his home in Nesconset. The results of all that effort are 30 teams crammed into the Brentwood VFW’s parking lot on a bright, crisp Saturday morning in April. Most are local crews, two-to-five member teams made up almost entirely of men, dragging their trailers from Oceanside, Babylon, Glen Head and as far away as Woburn, Massachusetts. While a few elite pitmasters travel around the country living off competition purses, barbecuing is mostly a hobby for these weekend cooks.
Most of the competitors this weekend are part of the BBQ Brethren. Rizzardi founded the Brethren, now a 38,000-member international online community, where barbecue enthusiasts discuss smokers, recipes, techniques and competition results. Rizzardi, Owitz and the other teams are here to shake the rust off a long winter when there is a lull in the competitive cooking circuit.
Though that doesn’t mean they haven’t been working at it. Some here have prepared for the season by taking a barbecue class—think of it as a continuing education requirement. Cooking techniques, sauces and rubs are constantly changing in an effort to impress judges.
The teams scatter around the perimeter and each is assigned a 25×34-foot area to cook in and most teams will spend the night sleeping just a feet away from their slowly smoldering pork and beef. They huddle in sleeping bags and lawn chairs to protect them from that night’s 30-degree chill. After arriving they unloaded trailers, erected 10×10-foot tents, rolled out red or black metal, mechanic-style toolboxes filled with the thermometers, tongs, knives, aluminum foil and other tools they’ll need over the weekend. Then the smokers came out: Some tall, upright and stainless steel, others low, long and painted black. All will be belching out smoke soon as crews mingle while preparing appetizers before the serious competition starts Saturday night. In the meantime, they walk around proudly showing off new rigs like a car buff opening the hood to his ’69 GTO.
While competitions are most certainly about the food, it’s also part campout, part networking opportunity and part festival. There is camaraderie among the teams and this weekend is the first time a lot of the cooks have seen each other since last fall when the season wrapped. Naturally there is plenty of joking, gawking at equipment and opposing teams’ collections of trophies, ribbons and—if the team is any good—its number from the American Royal barbecue competition, where teams from all over the country compete.
They come packing all sorts of smokers, from trailers holding thousand-dollar automated versions to a group of Weber Smokey Mountains to a custom made grill that spent its previous life as a propane tank. Before teams can trim a single thigh, judges must inspect the meat to verify cuts are proper for the competition—generally pork shoulders and ribs, chicken thighs and beef brisket—that nothing has been cooked or seasoned ahead of time and that it’s stored properly. Then the teams put into action the game plans they decided on weeks ago. A regimented list of steps that unfold over hours of prepping, trimming, rubbing, injecting marinades, smoking, resting, carving, tasting, more carving and more tasting, then presentation.
Barbecue competitions push the cream of the pitmasters to the top—these are not the pizza-tossing sort that merit showmanship over taste. These competitions come with monetary prizes, which sometimes barely cover the expense of the meat. This weekend’s purse was about $5,000, which was split up between winners in each meat category. The overall winning team took home $1,000. They battle for trophies and certain competitions are a stepping-stone to a bigger stage. The competitive barbecue circuit in New York has grown to 11 events sanctioned by New York State. WilliePallooza is sanctioned, win it and it’s your first step into the big leagues of competition barbecue. Most of the major, national barbecue competitions like Kansas City’s American Royal (the World Series of Barbecue) or the more selective Jack Daniel’s Invitational in Lynchburg, TN require a state-sanctioned win to qualify. Come spring, teams on the Island dust off their rigs, visit their wholesale clubs to secure their meat or have it flown in from the Midwest if they want top quality, grass-fed protein and put to work everything they’ve learned in the “off season.”
Some teams tweak their rubs over years, not unlike Keith Dorman who sells his No. 117 rub at his Port Washington restaurant Harbor Q. “It took me years to get this right,” Dorman said. “I tweaked it probably every weekend or every other weekend until I got it just right, which was on version 117.” And even though Owitz uses a store-bought mix with brown sugar, cayenne, paprika and garlic, the wall in front of the cutting board he’s working on has more than a dozen shakers on it. The team is constantly interrupted because Rizzardi plays part organizer and part competitor, so friends and competitors constantly pop in asking questions, like what time is turn in, the official time on Sunday when the four major categories will have to be turned in. Outside their trailer is the Fast Eddy FEC100, a $4,000 stainless steel cooker that looks like a more substantial version of a dorm room refrigerator than a means of making humble food. Many teams use the Fast Eddy because the computer and auger bolted to its side automatically drops food-grade wood pellets into a fire, which keeps the temperature at the 225 degree sweet spot. It belches smoke from a rudimentary steel vent stack as it starts cooking the moinks: Meatballs (moo) wrapped in bacon (oink) which are handed out to teams to sample; a friendly gesture of sorts before things get serious on Sunday.
Brentwood neighbors start to filter in, attracted by the smell of the wood smoke, the tents and commotion, but while there are dozens of teams slated to cook, the only barbecue a visitor can buy is from the sole vendor who has the necessary license to sell food; he’s across from the pickles and ice cream vendors and next to the local distributor trying to sell Big Green Egg smokers. Competitors don’t have a license to sell the food they cook, which allows the organizers to draw in vendors to help cover the cost of the event. To accompany the moinks several teams prepare the only vegetarian option this weekend will see—halved jalapeños filled with cream cheese and sometimes wrapped in bacon. Each team can produce about 30 pounds of meat over the two days, most of which is given away to a food bank or to family and friends who come down at the end of the competition. “We cook the insurance,” said Frank Sacco of Blazin’ Buttz BBQ. What starts as a 10-pound brisket cooks down to 8 pounds after 10 or so hours of attention, from which the team looks to harvest eight worthy slices to present to the judges.
The Blazin’ Buttz trailer the morning of the second day of cooking is a beehive of activity. The trailer, required to haul two Fast Eddy smokers, sits on the asphalt next to a small generator. Beneath two tents bungee corded together all the prep, resting and cutting happens. Managing all of the chaos is a medium sized dry erase board that outlines, in 15-minute increments, where the team should be with the meat at any given time. A few minutes before their brisket entry is scheduled to be submitted, Bob Schwarz turns to his wife and teammate Laura and asks for the “brisket slicing music,” which accompanies Schwarz from a docked iPhone near the cutting station. He carefully slices a brisket with long, measured strokes of a serrated knife to the tune of The Allman Brothers’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” As the slices fall away from the mass Sacco picks up each one, letting it flop over his pointer finger to gauge how done the meat is. “A thermometer will only tell you so much,” Sacco said. “You really have to feel the meat.” The two will slice until they find the eight perfect sections they need.
On the far end of the lot is Eric Johnson’s trailer, inside which is a smoker capable of cooking an entire hog. But for this competition they’re firing up two smaller units, one handmade in Maine using aircraft-grade insulation. Johnson, part of Mr. Bobo’s Traveling BBQ Allstars, goes by the moniker the “Sultan of Swine.” While he’s not competing this weekend, he’s helping his friends, the Purple Pork Masters. Johnson and the Bobo team have won numerous awards though he rarely swallows what he cooks. “I’ll taste it but then I spit it out,” he said. It’s a notion that many share at the event. After spending 48 hours handling, prepping, cooking and cutting meat, most would be quite happy eating a salad. The affinity for salads aside, “most barbecue clothing starts at 2x,” Johnsons said, referring to the size of the shirts many teams have made for the competitions.
As Sunday morning rolls into mid afternoon teams are loading in chicken thighs, which is the first category to be submitted though it hits the smoke last because it cooks the fastest. The other meats are in various stages of resting. The pace picks up as teams have a scant 10-minute window to submit each of the meats. The lot fills with competitors walking quickly, but purposefully, into the VFW’s hall to submit their efforts in a 9×9-inch white foam take out container. After hours of prep, attention to detail and carefully selecting the perfect cut, the meat of their labors find their ends in the most nondescript of vessels.
Scott competes with Rizzardi all over the Northeast. It’s not unusual for Owitz, a nurse, to spend an hour breaking down chicken thighs so they are uniform and will cook evenly. In the cramped BBQ Brethren trailer Owitz trims and debones the chicken while continuing the conversation with a stream of other competitors who pop in and out of the trailer. The competition’s first day is a casual chili cook-off where teams meet and greet each other. “The atmosphere is friendly for the most part but tomorrow it’s going to get hectic because we have a ten minute window to turn in each of the four categories,” Owitz said. He picks up a printout with a list of what happens when—like pork goes in at this time and check the beef at that time.
Bob (pictured) and Laura Schwarz, Frank Sacco
Blazin’ Buttz BBQ
After six years of competing, this team operates with the efficiency of doctors in surgery, but that’s during the run up to submission. Before that, they are happy to discuss the hallmarks of good barbecue: What it should look like, what it should smell like and what it should taste like. They would know, the team placed 12 out of 480 teams at the American Royal in 2011; 32 out of 525 teams the year before that. Each member has a role to play. Laura handles chicken (the team finished third in chicken) while Frank and Bob prep, rub and endlessly fond over the pork and brisket. Their tent looks like a well organized, pop up triage unit with rolling cabinets, folding tables raised to countertop height with lengths of PVC pipe slipped over the legs and a portable fireplace. All the work pays off as the team takes seventh overall, seventh in pork butt and sixth in brisket. At the competition following WilliePallooza, they took the grand prize in the NYC BBQ Cook Off in Staten Island, a sanctioned event, which means the team has a shot at competing for the American Royal and The Jack.
Evolution of the ’cue
By the time barbecue made its way to the New World by way of present day Colombia the technique changed little and consisted mostly of cooking deer, pig and fish over a wood fire. Barbecue, from the Taino Indian word barbacoas, is the name for the arrangement of sticks the food was placed on. It has always been a social event enjoyed by every class, from the poorest slaves to the wealthiest landowners. George Washington once attended a barbecue that lasted three days and some historians believe he lost the first seat he ran for in Virginia because he did not host a barbecue to court potential voters. After the Civil War freed slaves who manned kitchens as pitmasters took their style of cooking to Kansas City and as far north as Chicago. Barbecue grew from there like a regional dialect, each style distinct though sharing the same root. But nearly every region cooks with pork (shoulder or ribs) and chicken, though Texas still eschews pork for local and abundant beef. Whatever the kind, traditional barbecue is cooked for hours overnight, hovering at the 225 degree mark over wood, which perfumes the meat while the low and slow heat breaks down the grisly connective tissue.
There is no way around it—barbecue is time consuming. Thankfully you won’t have to wait eight hours for pulled pork at these local spots.
Big eaters unite: In addition to smoking “que,” Al’s is home of the Two Mile High burger challenge.
Great BBQ, but also great blues, bourbon and beer. It’s a time capsule to Memphis by way of St. Louis.
If there were such a thing as “haute que” this would be it, an almost upscale bistro-like barbecue haunt.
Where else but in the Hamptons can you get authentic, rustic bbq delivered to the beach? Yeah, exactly.
If you love Texas, you’ll love Dixie’s. If you are a fan of the “slow and low” style, you’ll love Dixie’s.
Big Daddy’s Restaurant
You gotta love a place that counts down to Fat Tuesday 365 days a year. You know what you’re stepping in to.
While the act of cooking tough cuts of meat for long periods of time over smoldering wood hasn’t changed, the rigs used in the competitive cooking circuit have. The more you spend, the more consistent the cooker maintains the temperature and the less work the pitmaster has to do. In a competition, that means more sleep.
Auger fed smoker:
This is the most popular kind of smoker on the competitive circuit though it requires taking a generator along to power its electric burner. A computer on the side feeds food grade wood pellets to provide flavor and color.
A variation of the popular Weber grill, this bullet shaped smoker uses mostly charcoal as the heat source and wood chunks or chips for flavor and color. Most competitors fit this style smoker with a computer that uses probes to control a tiny fan to increase or decrease the heat level.
Shaped like a barrel, this smoker burns wood in a separate box off to the side. The smoke is pulled into the main compartment where it works its magic on the meat before being pulled up through a stack on the far end.