Barbecue cook-off contest at builds camaraderie

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 24, 2012

SALISBURY – Dale Ellis refers to his team of pitmasters called Beer Helps BBQ as weekend cookers.
The Faith resident said the four-man crew always goes into barbecue cook-offs hoping to win, but even if they don’t they walk away happy.
“We do it for fun and camaraderie,” he said. “It gives us a chance to spend some time together.”
The group started hitting the barbecue cook-off circuit a couple years ago. They typically make it to three or four contests a year.
“We don’t do it a lot, so we’re still learning,” he said.
But the men have managed to nail down at least one key ingredient, beer. They use it in pans placed between the heat and meat to keep the meat moist during long cooking sessions. Sometimes they go light, other times they prefer dark.
“The most important thing is that we drink some too,” Ellis said.
Ellis and his crew stayed up almost all night Friday cooking for the second annual Biker, Blues and BBQ Rally at Tilley Harley-Davidson, an event sanctioned by the Kansas City BBQ Society.
They put their meat on the grill at midnight Saturday and cooked through the middle of the day.
“We take turns sleeping, so we normally get two or three hours,” he said. “We sleep in cars or in our chairs. Usually two guys watch while two guys rest. It’s critical to keep the temperature where it needs to be.”
Brad VunCannon of Salisbury took a different approach. Instead of starting at midnight, he began at 3 a.m. Saturday.
“I get a good power nap from about midnight to 3 a.m.,” he said.
VunCannon, whose team name is Pig Pen Enterprises, ran a one-man show, cooking all four meats including chicken, pork, ribs and brisket by himself.
“It’s two days of really hard work,” he said.
The work begins Friday when the pitmasters season their meats.
VunCannon uses his own Pig Pen seasoning, which is a salt-based blend with paprika, sugar, pepper, garlic, onion and cayenne pepper.
“I use it on everything,” he said. “I might use it by itself or mix it with something.”
This time, VunCannon added sugar to help caramelize the meat to create a good bark.
He doesn’t stray from his methods very often.
“I found what works,” he said. “These contests are funny because you can go to one and use your formula of seasoning and sauces and come in third place and then go to the next one and do the exact same thing and come in 30th.
“You can’t change every contest, you’ve kind of got to get a game plan.”
VunCannon said it’s important to develop a seasoning that will appeal to a wide variety of tastes.
“You’ve got to try to hit that flavor profile that makes everyone happy and that’s tough to do sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes you have to figure out where you are and you might change the outside flavor profile to satisfy the judges but the basics are always the same.”
VunCannon, who competes in about 10 competitions a year, said he became a pitmaster after watching a show on the Travel Channel back in 2007.
“I thought, ‘That can’t be that hard to do,'” he said. “I started off with one of those little $25 smokers from Lowe’s and worked my way up to having a trailer and big smokers.”
But VunCannon quickly found out that it wasn’t that simple.
“In a way, this is a sport,” he said. “Granted we’re not athletes that are in shape, but it is a sport that takes skills. You don’t just show up at one of these things and throw a piece of meal on the grill, it takes a lot of time and effort.
VunCannon said he enjoys cooking and meeting friends along the way.
“This is a big brotherhood,” he said. “There’s a lot of camaraderie here, you want to win, but you’re pulling for your buddy too.”
Tracy Edwards, general manager of Tilley Harley-Davidson, said a total of 54 teams competed in this year’s event, up from 37 last year.
B.S. Pitmeisters from Boiling Springs took home the top prize of grand champion.
VunCannon came in 19th overall and Beer Helps BBQ placed 50th.Edwards said about 3,000 people flocked to the rally throughout the three-day event that kicked off Thursday.
“The turnout has just been awesome,” she said. “We had a good crowd last year, but this is by more than last year.”
A portion of the proceeds from the event are going to the Wounded Warrior Project, Disabled American Veterans, Operation Homefront North Carolina and the Folds of Honor Foundation.
“It’s been our goal from the start to raise money for charities,” Edwards said. “It’s been so much fun.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.