Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: the Barbecue America cookbook



the Barbecue America cookbook

By: Rick Browne and Jack Bettridge

Publisher: The Lyons Press

216 pages

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book. It seemed to have been striving for a ‘folksy’ appeal with the cover design and it comes off a bit forced. I was afraid that I was in for a book that covered the basics, which might be a bit condescending and was designed for the occasional backyard cook. I was pleased to realize that I was completely wrong.

Although I’m still not a fan of the lettering on the cover coupled with the picture, this book appears folksy because it is folksy. Clearly not a gimmick, the authors are here to proselytize the good news of BBQ and we are the better for it. To continue the religious analogy, like many converts to a new cause, the authors are happy to stand on the literary street corner and call out to the faithful. Neither of the authors were particular fans of BBQ until they approached middle age.

Unlike most cookbooks, this soft cover, 216 page book doubles as an introduction to the world of competitive BBQ. Interspersed through the recipes are commentaries, stories and brief histories. The authors decided to use the occasion of the book to go on a ‘low and slow’ sojourn, hitting the BBQ mecca’s and the major festivals.

The recipes in the book are comprehensive and creative, hitting the traditions of the various BBQ regions. As an example, the book includes a section on mutton which is a BBQ mainstay in Kentucky. Similarly, there is a section on the pacific north west and a variety of fish recipes. You get what you paid for here, all the standards are covered with sections on rubs, sauces, desserts, various meats and more.

I found the book delightful. I wish I had read it when I was just getting interested in competitive BBQ. The behind the scenes glimpses are reminiscent of George Plimpton and Stephan Fatsis (author of the amazing ‘Word Freak’). For someone that is intrigued by the representation of competitive BBQ found on Food Network, this is a great cookbook and an excellent introduction to the competition circuit.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Review: Ribber City N. Carolina Sauce


Ribber City North Carolina Style

Manufacturer The Phoenix Food Group
Website www.ribbercity.com


Quality **** (4 out of 5)
Viscosity n/a
Aroma **** (4 out of 5)

Appearance *** (3.5 out of 5)

Packaging *** (3 out of 5)


The majority of the sauces reviewed on the Home of BBQ website are tasted alone and on pulled pork or brisket. On occasion the sauce will be tried with ribs or chicken. If a sauce is labeled as multipurpose it will often be tried with a burger or fries. We always attempt to match the sauce with what it is recommended for on the label. Sadly, I will never try a sauce on steak. It wouldn’t be fair to me or the steak. It would be a degradation to us both.


This is one of the oddest sauces that I have had the pleasure of reviewing. That’s neither positive nor negative, just an interesting note. I almost have to restrain myself from being overly influenced by the novelty and offer commentary strictly on the quality. At least 90% of the sauces that I get to review are some variation of a standard KC style. Viva la difference!


The sauce comes in a 16oz. glass bottle. It pours VERY easily (use caution). The label is a bit rustic and I believe that is by design. They overall design (bottle and packaging) isn’t very dynamic, but I’m not sure if that is what you are going for with a BBQ sauce. It offers a ‘homey’, comfortable vibe that I think works well for the product.


The aroma is relatively strong and offers piquant hints of wine, as opposed to the standard tart aroma that usually accompanies Carolina sauces. The aroma parallels the taste as well as any sauce that I have had the pleasure of tasting.


Being a Carolina sauce, there is no viscosity to speak of. A typical eastern Carolina sauce can just as easily be used as a marinade or mop as a sauce. Often called a dippin’ sauce in the area, the use of a Carolina sauce is significantly different than that of a KC style sauce.


The sauce is a translucent, light brown with specks of ingredients that float in the liquid.

The sauce has little of the tartness found in many vinegar sauces, although cider vinegar is the primary ingredient. The reasons for this include wine as a strong second ingredient, molasses and ketchup that ameliorate the harshness and Dr. Pepper (yes, you read that right) to add a unique and distinctive kick.


This was the first sauce that I have tried by Ribber City but it won’t be my last.


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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Review: Mississippi Original Barbecue Sauce


Original Mississippi Barbecue Sauce

Manufacturer Mississippi Barbecue Sauce
Website www.mississippibbq.com


Quality *** (4 out of 5)
Viscosity *** (3 out of 5)
Aroma **** (4 out of 5)

Appearance ** (2.5 out of 5)

Packaging *** (2.5 out of 5)


The majority of the sauces reviewed on the Home of BBQ website are tasted alone and on pulled pork or brisket. On occasion the sauce will be tried with ribs or chicken. If a sauce is labeled as multipurpose it will often be tried with a burger or fries. We always attempt to match the sauce with what it is recommended for on the label. Sadly, I will never try a sauce on steak. It wouldn’t be fair to me or the steak. It would be a degradation to us both.


**Note

This sauce was reviewed on pulled pork that was slightly more salty than I would have preferred. This might have had a positive affect on the impression of the sauce as it has a bold profile. A milder sauce may have suffered, but the Original Mississippi Sauce is strong enough to cover a multitude of sins.**


Here is a confession for you. I don’t really know what a ‘mississippi sauce’ is or should be. I’m comfortable with N. Carolina (Eastern and Piedmont), S. Carolina, Memphis, Alabama and KC; but Mississippi has me stumped. If this is typical, I think I like it.


The sauce came in a plastic, 18oz. squeeze bottle with a ‘squirt’ lid. The label was unassuming, with a black and white image of a paddle boat on the Mississippi. The text is in red and blue with a white background. Any patriotic connotation is lost with the addition of the yellow banner labeling the sauce as their ‘original’ flavor.


A strong and lasting aroma awaits the user of this sauce. The aroma doesn’t suggest the spice that is enjoyed after the rest of the taste starts to fade, but it is still enjoyable.


The sauce pours (squirts) easily and is fairly thick. Similar to a KC style sauce and certainly thicker than a Memphis style, the sauce adheres very well to the meat. Looser sauces will often find themselves coating more of the meat as it follows the pull of gravity, but thicker sauces remain where you put them and stick to the meat. It’s a bit of compromise. I prefer a thinner sauce. The dark red coloring of the sauce has little variation and is fairly opaque.


The sauce is certainly less sweet than both KC and Memphis style sauces but seems to share the same basic profile. Tomato based with a strong addition of vinegar. The sweetness is also cleaner than in many sauces and rests on the tongue more easily. There is a very nice spice that lingers and lingers. It’s not a heat, or at least not a pronounced heat. It offers a bit of a kick at the end of the tasting experience.


This was an interesting foray into Mississippi sauces (both the brand and the region) and I look forward to a return culinary trip.


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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ramblings: Guest Article

For those that are interested, I have written a brief guest review for PigTrip.net


We don't do reviews that don't apply to the majority of our readers here, but I wanted to share my thoughts about Smoking Sloes, a Long Island based BBQ joint.


The contrast between Gary's initial review (I was with him for the original visit) and the more recent review (mine) is telling, as it shows a marked increase in quality and creativity by the pitmaster.

If you live in the north east, PigTrip should be a regular internet stop. It's a great resource that can't be recommended highly enough.

If you are familiar with a similar resource in your neck of the woods, let me know and I'll be happy to bring it to the publics attention.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ramblings: Stuck in a Rut

Are we stuck in a rut?

Is competitive BBQ as a whole resistant to change and innovation? Are we as a group overly reluctant to step away from patterns and forms that we are comfortable with? The majority of events that are within a given geographic area will be for the most part indistinguishable from each other. Differences are mostly cosmetic and most often affect form instead of function.

Why is this?

Sticking with the status quo is beneficial for three separate groups. Those that are new to BBQ find the entire venture daunting. Excitement meets trepidation as they plan for the event. Everything is a challenge as they have no personal history to refer to. To add something else to the mix, especially something that can’t be as easily researched and planned for adds to the anxiety.

Regular competitors, especially those that have a solid track record don’t want to be forced by the organizers to change what they have been doing year in and year out. Any changes that they make they would like to be the result of their own personal evaluation and research and be within narrow parameters. If they are disappointed by their brisket scores, they may want to experiment with using Fab or a new dry rub. They don’t want to be told that their brisket turn-ins must be in the form of a sandwich. Control is a key word for serious competitors. Forcing change upon them meets with strong and quick resistance.

Organizing and running a BBQ competition is a tremendous amount of work. The best way to cut back on your workload is to repeat processes. Having the same categories, run in the same way allows for you to learn from your mistakes and to have set procedures in place. You can duplicate efforts and increase your chances of success.

What is the upside of this?

Competitors continually improve their game. I feel comfortable saying that pitmasters who excelled in 1998 would be hard put to do as well if they stepped through a portal in time and arrived at a competition in 2008.

New teams have an incredible array of resources available to them as they gear up for competition. BBQ forums, websites and tutorials have become ubiquitous. Means of finding other teams that can act as mentors has made the learning curve a lot less steep. All of those resources go out the window when something new is brought to the table.

Events are run smoothly and well. Organizers, like new teams, are able to find guides and mentors that are able to walk them through the process of running a cook-off.

What is the downside of this?


Boredom and a lack of innovation that fosters a stilted, repetitive mindset. Repetitive cookie-cutter events that lack individual branding and identification.

What can be done?

Maintain the integrity of the main event for your cook-off by keeping within strict parameters while introducing innovation to side categories, such as grilling. Introduce new styles of presentation and judging for side events.

Look outside of your area and see what other organizers are doing. For example, if you are in Maine look to Texas events for inspiration. If you are in Seattle, look to Memphis competitions.

Be willing to listen to constructive criticism and suggestions. Expect resistance and lassitude followed by enthusiasm and congratulations after the fact if your innovations go off without a hitch.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Review: Texas Rib Rangers Spicey


Texas Rib Rangers Spicey BBQ Sauce

Manufacturer Texas Rib Rangers
Website www.texasribrangers.com


Quality *** (3.5 out of 5)
Viscosity *** (3 out of 5)
Aroma *** (3.5 out of 5)

Appearance *** (3 out of 5)

Packaging *** (3 out of 5)


The majority of the sauces reviewed on the Home of BBQ website are tasted alone and on pulled pork or brisket. On occasion the sauce will be tried with ribs or chicken. If a sauce is labeled as multipurpose it will often be tried with a burger or fries. We always attempt to match the sauce with what it is recommended for on the label. Sadly, I will never try a sauce on steak. It wouldn’t be fair to me or the steak. It would be a degradation to us both.


Texas Rib Rangers is much like some other sauces such as Big Bob Gibson’s, where the sauces marketing is based on the success of the competition team it is associated with. Like some of their cook-off oriented competition, they use some ingredients that you might not like to see in their sauce. Unlike some others, for them it works.


Where another sauce might smell and taste ‘commercial’ or have a ‘chemical’ flavor, the Rib Rangers Spicey (I don’t understand the extra ‘e’) Sauce manages to have an aroma that boasts of the molasses flavor instead of the corn syrup. The aroma is distinctive and a bit hard to nail down. The predominant component is the molasses, but there is more to it. The aroma is a winner.


The sauce comes in a thin topped 14.5 oz bottle. The folksy label with the anthropomorphized bull (including cowboy hat and rangers shirt) work well with a BBQ sauce. They clearly aren’t going for the elegant ‘gourmet’ look or the slick Madison Avenue appeal. It stood out visually in the specialty store where I picked it from a shelf next to dozens of other bottles.


The sauce is of medium thickness and pours easily. Dark red in color, the sauce is fairly opaque. There are seeds visible in the sauce and their light coloring provides a nice visual contrast to the dark red of the liquid. Although it isn’t very thick, the sauce had no problem with pooling or slipping off the meat.


I would say that the description of ‘spicey’ hits it right on the head. The sauce has a nice heat, but nothing serious. It’s enjoyable without much of a burn. The heat lingers a bit and slowly dissipates.


There is an enjoyable and unexpected sweetness that goes with the heat. It’s a deeper sweetness that comes from the molasses that was also enjoyed in the aroma. The combination of flavors (tomato, vinegar, molasses and heat) add up to a winning combination.


You can purchase Rib Rangers sauces at http://www.peppers.com/showitem.cfm/bbq_sauces.html


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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Review: Harry and David Sweet Southern

Harry and David Sweet Southern Barbecue Sauce

Manufacturer Harry and David
Website
www.harryanddavid.com


Quality *** (3.5 out of 5)
Viscosity **** (4 out of 5)
Aroma ** (2.5 out of 5)

Appearance *** (3 out of 5)

Packaging ** (2.5 out of 5)


The majority of the sauces reviewed on the Home of BBQ website are tasted alone and on pulled pork or brisket. On occasion the sauce will be tried with ribs or chicken. If a sauce is labeled as multipurpose it will often be tried with a burger or fries. We always attempt to match the sauce with what it is recommended for on the label. Sadly, I will never try a sauce on steak. It wouldn’t be fair to me or the steak. It would be a degradation to us both.

Harry and David’s Sweet Southern Barbecue Sauce comes in a 17.5 oz glass bottle. The bottle is solid and strong with easy pouring for the sauce. With a subdued orange and tan label, the bottle appearance is elegant and understated. It doesn’t stand out well, but not being sold in supermarkets it doesn’t have to.

The aroma is sweet, with equal parts tomato and fruit aromas. The sauce is a light red, bordering on orange. It has a very thick consistency with great variation in size of ingredients.

Like most products that I’ve tried by Harry and David, the sauce was quite good. The sauce is fairly mild and relatively sweet. Like the best of sauces, the flavor doesn’t detract from the meat. The small chunks of ingredients add to the overall experience. This is a good tasting sauce that would be as welcome on chicken as it would on pork or brisket.

If you are looking for a sweet, slightly fruity sauce; this is for you.

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Review: Happy Trails Sauce


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Happy Trails Bar-B-Que Sauce

Manufacturer Okie BBQ Inc.
Website www.okiebbq.com


Quality **** (4 out of 5)
Viscosity *** (3.5 out of 5)
Aroma *** (3.5 out of 5)

Appearance **** (4 out of 5)

Packaging ***** (5 out of 5)


The majority of the sauces reviewed on the Home of BBQ website are tasted alone and on pulled pork or brisket. On occasion the sauce will be tried with ribs or chicken. If a sauce is labeled as multipurpose it will often be tried with a burger or fries. We always attempt to match the sauce with what it is recommended for on the label. Sadly, I will never try a sauce on steak. It would be an insult to any steak worth eating.


Regular readers know that in my not so humble opinion, one of the prime ingredients in any BBQ delicacy should be a bit of Americana. BBQ is as much a cultural touchstone as it is a culinary description. Happy Trails adds more than a touch of what we would like America to be to their sauce. The sauce has a history that reaches back to depression era Oklahoma. The recipe has been handed down to family members and has become a vital part of their personal history, enjoyed at important family gatherings.


The ‘Happy Trails’ in the name comes from the song by Roy Rogers. The owner of Okie BBQ has had a long relationship with both the late Roy Rogers (and Dale Evans) as well as the Roy Rogers Museum. Their friendship led to the morphing of what was then known as the Okie Sauce to the Happy Trails sauce.


The third aspect of the ‘Americana’ aspect of the Happy Trails triumvirate is the support that the company shows the troops and the support for the product that is reciprocated by our men and women in the military. The manufacturers were kind enough to send along a ‘testimonial’ from a soldier in Bagdad who shared some of the sauce with a local Sheikh. The soldier had carefully packaged some bottles and brought them to Iraq. He is bringing one back with him to present to Okie BBQ as a bottle that had seen service in Iraq.


Although it is a nice bonus, if a sauce is subpar no amount of cultural importance can save it. So how does Happy Trails stack up?


With a label that would look just as appropriate on a 1950’s lunch box, the bottle has a strong statement to make. Its slightly anachronistic look hearkens back to an earlier time and denotes the history inherent in the sauce. A painting of Roy Rogers astride Trigger and Dale waiving from a ranch entrance immediately put you in mind of what is in store. It is an iconic image while still being idiosyncratic enough to stand out from the crowd. The bottle is a thick glass that contains 18oz. of sauce.


The aroma is enjoyable and offers a hint of the moderate spice you will find in the taste. It has the same ‘base’ smell as most catsup based sauces without the overpowering sweetness that often ruins both taste and aroma. The aroma is fairly strong and lingers. Although the aroma is pleasant, for those that would prefer to appreciate the aromatics of the meat, this might interfere.


The sauce is a deep red without being opaque (in use, not in the bottle). There are variations to the sauce that add to the appearance, such as the black specks of pepper and the small ‘bumps’ of tomato (that also add to the mouthfeel).


Thick without being gloopy, the sauce adheres well to the meat while adding another slight layer to the food.


Tasting the sauce offers what you would expect from a catsup based sauce but also adds new layers that are sadly missing in many of their competitors. As mentioned, the lack of over pureeing provides a nice, varying texture to the sauce. There is a bit of heat and a bit of tang that pull you away from the ‘catsup’ mindset. I’m also pleased to note that in line with the aroma, the sauce avoids the overly sweet taste that is a particular annoyance to me (and hey, reviews are subjective).


Happy Trails sauce is not going to shock anyone with its flavor profile. It’s a bit off kilter for a KC style sauce, but it is closer to that then a Memphis style. Where it excels is in its execution. After enjoying the sauce on BBQ I also used it on a burger and with some fries.


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Friday, September 5, 2008

Ramblings: Ethics of BBQ

Is BBQ an Ethical Hobby?

What is ethical? How do we define what is ‘right’ and morally acceptable? Ethics is a major branch of philosophy that deals with how we value and assign judgment to behavior. Although there is a widely accepted codified definition of what is ethical and what is not, there is serious ‘wriggle room’; specifically in the discussion of subjective vs. objective reality.

As BBQ enthusiasts, where do we stand in the spectrum of ethical behavior? Is our hobby neutral, positive or negative? Are we in support of something that is deleterious to society in general by engaging in our favorite pastime? Is there a simple and categorical answer to these questions?

Most competitors travel a considerable distance to attend an event. They travel with a significant weight burden in a vehicle that is engineered for strength and stability as opposed to efficiency of fuel usage. In addition to themselves, competitors haul hundreds and hundreds of pounds of equipment that they will need over the course of the event. A prodigious amount of non-renewable energy is consumed in merely getting to and from an event.

The average competitor at a serious BBQ cook-off will cook enough food to feed an army. Multiple racks of ribs, at least one full pork shoulder, and a couple of briskets (point and flat) will be cooked over the course of a weekend for the primary purpose of choosing a few select specimens to present to the judges. No matter how you cut it, this is an ostentatious display of culinary wealth that would beggar the imagination of people from most of the world.

The primary sources of fuel for cooking at these events are charcoal and wood. These fuels deplete the limited resources found in our declining woodland reserves while promulgating the pollutants found in our air.

Serious competitors spend countless hours in preparation for and participation in cook-offs. These hours are a resource that could be spent on other activities, such as education, family time, volunteerism and self discovery.

Doesn’t sound so promising.

On the other hand, more and more events are finding ways to help competitors get left over food agencies such as America’s Second Harvest. Many teams donate their food to local food pantries or altruistic organizations. If there is a concerted effort to avoid gratuitous and gross consumption and if there is an attempt made to address the concerns of found in Isaiah 58 and in Matthew 25 to feed the hungry and provide drink for the thirsty, I believe that we can easily justify the amount of food prepared.

If providing for those in need moves from a tertiary concern to one of secondary importance only behind finding the most delectable and attractive portions for the judges, than sacrifice of fuel and time also becomes more reasonable. Many teams couple their food donation with using their knowledge and skills to assist in community events, such as potluck dinners. There are a number of competitions that have a charitable aspect and serve as fundraisers for worthy causes. Supporting the event and participating by extension supports that cause.

I know of numerous competitors who use their time at events as an opportunity to bond with their children or mates. Father son teams are not uncommon and husband and wife teams are very popular. In a society that seems to continuously encourage separation and isolation, any activity that has such a strong familial and societal aspect should be encouraged.

It seems that on the surface BBQ Competitions can be emblematic of conspicuous over consumption. If we look a bit deeper we will see that competitors often use the opportunity to do what good that they can. Like most things in life BBQ is a neutral and how it is approached by the participants is what determines its value.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ramblings: Coordinating a Competition


(photo by LG Patterson)

This is another in our series of articles providing an overview of the different roles for BBQ Competitions. Offering a different perspective on the roles of event organizers is Tara Hart.

Tara Hart is a Midwest girl who thrives on red meat and cold beer and whose BBQ competition experience is limited to her dad and brother’s cook-offs. She has been thrown into the fire (pun intended) with her involvement at this year’s Roots ‘N Blues ‘N BBQ Festival in October.

In 2007, the inaugural Roots ‘N Blues ‘N BBQ Festival (rootsnbluesnbbq.com) took place. The Festival has two separate components – a music festival and a BBQ competition. With lessons learned from last year’s competition, Jori Rose provides her take on the most important aspects of organizing a BBQ competition for this year’s event taking place Oct. 3-4.

Scheduling: Jori notes in an ideal situation, a BBQ competition is held on the same date year after year. However, when coordinating with another event, and taking into consideration other activities in the area, it was important to change this year’s date. What does that mean to the organizers? They get to start the sanctioning process all over! Applications, letters, and funds are resubmitted to KCBS.

Location: Take into consideration the need for a flat surface, convenient load-in access, emergency services access, and generator locations and you’ll realize it is not so easy to find a space in a populous downtown that can accommodate 66 competitors. There’s also the judging location, but Jori put the competitors before the judges and identified a great spot that will handle 66 competitors easily. If you’re #67, though, sorry…you’re out of luck!

City Officials: It’s not enough to just set up a contest in the parking lot. There are always city officials who are leaning over your shoulder making sure you adhere to the rules and regulations. It’s important to remember that those rules are in place to keep everyone safe…but it doesn’t always make it easy to make the rules work for your competition! After establishing what Jori thought was a great plan for parking and load-in, turns out she didn’t take into consideration emergency vehicle access. Back to the drawing board!

Categories: Last year, the festival had five competition categories and Jori wanted to continue to offer the most opportunities for the contestants. The fifth category last year was “anything but meat” which made judging difficult. How do you judge a cheesecake with the same eye as seafood? Jori decided to make sausage the fifth category based on the German influence in Missouri.

Costs: While many might find room to balk at the application fee for a competition, it’s important to remember that in most competitions, 100% of the application fee goes toward prize money and organizers often struggle to break even. Why? Consider the following costs: city permits, advertising, tent rental, generators, judging materials, signage, and manpower.

Volunteers: To help cut costs, Jori recruits the best volunteers to help with the competition. Volunteers work long hours on their feet and doing heavy lifting with little to show for their hard work aside from a t-shirt and sore muscles! Volunteers assist in everything from mapping out and marking contestant spaces, to delivering materials, and checking in competitors. KCBS also requires meat be inspected before grilled…where can you find five inspectors who will volunteer their time to arrive early and check meat? The University of Missouri, just down the street from the Festival is the perfect resource!

Trophies: Not everyone will win, but certainly everyone wants to have that badge of honor displayed in their home! In addition to cash, how can you find a trophy that will encourage folks to do their best BBQing? Last year the winners received hand-painted guitars (to tie into the music portion of the Festival) and this year Grand Champion and Reserve Grand Champion will be walking away with an engraved barstool!

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