City admin take their BBQ show on the road
By Hugh Fisher
KANNAPOLIS — Monday through Friday, Eddie Smith goes to his office and does his job.
As the deputy city manager of Kannapolis, Smith wears a shirt and tie, crunches numbers and keeps business running smoothly.
On summer weekends, though, you might not recognize him.
He meets up with his college buddy, fellow town administrator Justin Hembree of Tryon, and they trade their business clothes for T-shirts and aprons.
They hitch up a custom-built grilling rig — wood smoker grill, gas grill, sink and stove — and load up a travel trailer with supplies.
And they head off to barbecue competitions, pitting their skills and spices against reality-TV stars, lifelong chefs and novices alike.
Fast Eddie’s Fine Swine is their name.
And slow-cooked savory pork barbecue is the game … not to mention the occasional beef brisket or rack of ribs.
Since June 2010, they’ve been learning the art, science and sport of competitive cooking on the fly — making their share of mistakes along the way.
But, most of all, having fun and cooking good barbecue.
Smith and Hembree are graduates of Appalachian State University. They got started grilling at tailgate parties and cooking out with friends.
Last summer, they decided to jump into the world of competitive barbecuing.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Smith said.
Because competitive cooking has become a big attraction, with events held throughout the Southeastern U.S.
There are several sanctioning bodies that track team points and standings, two of the biggest being the Kansas City Barbecue Society and the Memphis Barbecue Network.
Right now, Fast Eddie’s Fine Swine is in ninth place in the South Carolina Barbecue Association standings.
Each sanctioning body has its own rules, its own procedures.
Though Smith said it’s impossible for them to make it to every single event, for 2011 the team has chosen 17 cook-offs where they believe they can be competitive.
They may not win a grand championship — In fact, Smith said, even if they got a slot they’d let someone else have the glory of going.
This is all about making a name for themselves and having fun.
They’re calling it the 2011 “Rockin’ the Cradle of ‘Cue” Tour.
But competitive barbecuing makes for a long weekend, and a lot of late nights.
On June 3 and 4, the Fast Eddie’s flag was flying in Traveler’s Rest, S.C., for the Swamp Rabbit BBQ Cook-Off.
That was one of the smaller events, with just 14 teams. But, Smith said, ten of those are contenders in the points standings.
Going on 3 a.m., the park seemed like a particularly smoky vacation campground.
Cooks snored in lawn chairs and sleeping bags, many with temperature-sensing thermometers ready to beep or chime when the food was ready.
If the wind was right, one might literally have smelled the barbecue a mile away.
Though the festival stage was empty, the ballfields deserted, come 2:30 there was a quiet buzz of activity at the cook sites.
Smith’s thermometer sounded, letting him know that the pork butts on the smoker had reached full temperature.
From the lawn chair where he’d been quietly answering questions, he walked over and switched on floodlights above the cooker.
Wood smoke rose in waves as he checked on the red, juicy meat, probing to make sure every piece was up to temperature.
The competition pork butts had been trimmed and injected with marinade hours earlier.
After reaching the right temperature, they were taken out, wrapped in foil and put on to cook for several more hours on racks over pans of a secret sauce.
There’s a lot more to it than this, obviously — carefully-prepared marinades and spice mixtures, and some special procedures that the team prefers to keep off the record.
But on this particular night, the “low and slow” method of cooking pork barbecue was working well.
Elsewhere, the sounds of generators running, the rattle of tinfoil as other teams wrapped their pork butts and worked their own magic on the roasting meat.
Every cook site has its own touches: banners, music playing over speakers, a glowing sign in colorful LED’s flashing “OPEN 24 HOURS.”
Team names range from the straightforward (Two Old Men and a Grill, Tar Heel Smokers) to the funny (Serial Griller, Barbee-Q) and the off-the-wall (Too Bad You’re My Cousin, Team Buttrub).
Barbecue competitions draw serious contenders with RV’s that have fully enclosed kitchens.
And they draw the weekend warriors, armed with dome tents and smoker-grills you might find at Lowe’s.
Last weekend, Smith drove west again to Tryon, Hembree’s home turf, for the Blue Ridge BBQ and Music Festival.
After a long night with not a lot of sleep, the pace picked up in the morning hours.
This time, Fast Eddie’s was entered in four categories: pork, beef brisket, ribs and chicken.
Smith and Hembree had a lot more meat to look after, cooking at different times and different temperatures.
During the night, Smith said, “we went into damage control mode.”
The temperature in the cooker was far lower than it needed to be.
Which meant stoking the fires to cook more quickly.
Because everything has to be ready — chopped, arranged attractively, garnished when the rules allow it — for the short windows during which they must turn in their entries to the judges.
“You can be running up to the tent with your box in your hand, and if that clock goes off, you’re done,” Smith said.
Smith and Hembree are the first to admit that, when they competed for the first time at Tryon last year, they didn’t have a clue what to expect.
They finished next-to-last out of 89 teams in 2010, Smith said.
That was partly due to the fact their ribs were disqualified.
Rushing to get ready to turn in their entry, Smith cut the ribs wrong and wound up with sections that didn’t have bones.
Since then, they’ve learned some tricks of the trade, and all the quirky terminology:
Meat tubes. Money muscle. Bark. And so forth.
Smith took a course to become a certified judge, so he now knows what the judges expect.
And they outfitted a custom trailer with enough gear to be ready for any situation.
Depending on the event, they can cook with wood and charcoal or with gas.
“Gas is naturally moist,” Smith said. Wood and charcoal need to be kept moist.
Last December, competing in Conway, S.C., “it was 34 degrees and just miserable,” Smith said.
With gas, “we still get the flavor and the end product that we want without feeding charcoal all night,” Smith said.
At Tryon last weekend, the competition was fierce.
Fast Eddie’s entered four categories: pork, beef brisket, ribs and chicken.
It’s difficult to know just what to expect from the judges, Smith said, especially with so many teams competing.
“The judges have been conditioned to like the same thing,” Smith said. “They like sweet (barbecue).”
A spicy, five-alarm sauce wouldn’t fly at all — a rookie mistake, Smith said.
The complaint is that judging isn’t always consistent, especially at large events like Tryon, with table after table of judges.
The goal, no matter what, is to make Fast Eddie’s consistently good and continue to improve in the standings.
Smith said he wants Fast Eddie’s pork to taste good on its own, without so much sauce that it covers up the flavor of the meat.
“Try this,” he said, holding out a piece of the “bark” — the spice-crusted, drier outer part of the pork butt.
It’s got more seasoning and a more prominent smoky flavor.
When chopped and mixed with the rest of the moist, tender meat, it will flavor the whole portion.
That’s the goal, at least.
Though friends and family love their product, and Smith and Hembree themselves are confident, the judges don’t always agree.
When 4:30 came, standing under the park shelter with hundreds of others, Smith and Hembree listened as the winners’ names were read off over the P.A. system.
Fast Eddie’s wasn’t among them.
Finally, Smith was able to get the team’s judging results.
Fast Eddie’s placed 52nd out of 86 teams.
They were 38th in pork, 64th in ribs, 38th in brisket and 52nd in chicken.
Knowing how tough the competition was, Smith had said he hoped to place in the top half of the pack.
While those numbers aren’t what they wanted them to be, this season is far from over.
Smith said the plan is to keep competing, maybe focusing on just perfecting pork barbecue for now.
“I would rather concentrate on one or two (categories) until we get it right,” Smith said.
They’ll also be catering some events and cooking plenty of ‘cue for friends.
Saturday, in Tryon, after the competition boxes had been turned in, Hembree helped get some barbecue together for his town’s police officers.
For Smith, it’s more than about winning trophies.
The team plans to cook for charity groups and do some catering events as schedules allow.
Being a deputy town manager isn’t all fun and games. Neither is competitive cooking.
But between the professional world and the fast-paced world of competition, there’s plenty of time to kick back, relax, meet new people and enjoy some very “fine swine.”
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.