Thu Oct 3, 2013
My second, and final, competition of the season has now come and gone. Riding high on some big improvements during my last performance, I went into Que by the Sea in Seaside Heights, NJ with something to prove to myself—can I turn those gains into tangible wins (aka: cash money). As the date neared, a fire on the boardwalk the week before first caused uncertainty if the comp would even happen, then a pretty grim weather prediction for the actual event weekend incited some trepidation that ate away at confidence. Those fears were not completely unfounded, but luckily for The Meatwave, the finale of the long and rough weekend left us pretty stoked.
I was looking forward to this comp more than any that have come before. While I'm incredibly anxiety prone, I've reached a point where I'm comfortable enough with what I need to do before, during, and after a comp that I was able to ditch sleepless nights I suffered beforehand previously, even if my mind still drifted into fits of anxiety here and there. Beyond the comfort I'm settling in to, this was the first time I actually had a "team" coming to hang out and help out the entire weekend, which had me really excited.
The Jersey Shore locale seemed to get a lot more interest than the somewhat odd locations we've found ourselves in before. With the beach, boardwalk, games, and food an attractive prospect, we had my sister, Chuck, and Tyson all answer the call for company and help. Marissa and Joe also came out, but a late night bedbug scare in their hotel forced them skip town a day earlier than expected.
We hit the road Saturday morning, arriving in our flooded parking lot spot around 11am. After a relatively quick unload and set-up, we were off to enjoy the greasy treats a beach town invariably fries up. Kris was pretty smitten with these crispy and flavored tatorstixs.
Opting out of the Saturday portion of the competition left us with amble time to just relax with friends and throw back beers. While we've made friends to hang out with at other comps, it's certainly a different feeling enjoying this time with close friends who came out explicitly to be with you.
To show my appreciation for their presence and help, I smoked up some giant beef short ribs, done Texas-style, for dinner on Saturday. Even though we were mostly filled with fried mozzarella, pickles, and cheese soaked french fries at this point, everyone found room for some of these juicy and beefy ribs with a simple salt and pepper crust.
As the night rolled on, the threat of rain started to increase with every minute. Storms were on the horizon, and at the exact time I needed to start up my smokers, a steady rain started to roll in. At this point Reggie decided his duties as Candy Security were over, and he, along with everyone else, retreated to their hotels. I was then left alone to struggle through the next eight hours of downpours, quickly changing my jubilant spirit to one of fraught with frustration and impatience.
One thing I've never had a problem with at competition is running my smokers. I seem to be able to get both WSMs up to 225 degrees quickly, and hold them there for the 12 or so hours I need them to cook. This time around though, after three hours of heating, I couldn't get them past 200 degrees, and I started driving myself crazy adding more charcoal and doing whatever I could to get them to temp and my meat cooking right.
Unfortunately this meant a mostly sleepless night. I never really thought I needed any electric contraptions to ensure my smokers cook well, but at that moment I understood their value as my neighbor was sound asleep and I watched his temperatures hold at 225 through all the rain and wind thrown at them.
By morning I was exhausted and mostly resigned to that fact that I had a bad cook and this just wasn't going to be our day. The rain had ceased and the sun was shining, and despite some internal disappointment of letting myself down, I was still pretty happy to be there and looking forward to the day with friends and family.
The turn-ins crept up quickly as always, and as we readied each box, I solemnly tasted each successive failure. First was chicken, which I cooked a little longer than previously—I got a comment card saying my last chicken was undercooked—and was not happy with the results. While the sauce and rub were the same as my last comp, the flavors didn't seem to be working as well, and the chicken was juicy, but not as tender as I'd like it to be. They still looked mighty pretty and I thought they were probably our best bet for call that day.
Then came the ribs, which I had issues with the rub not setting and coming off during the final brown sugar and agave bath. Still, the first bone I tasted of these was pretty fantastic, but unfortunately that was a solitary example. The middle bones of each of the racks were undercooked, making them slightly tough and little dry. I really wanted to improve my ribs after dropping some notches last time around, but I felt this would land me back in the middle of the lot at best.
The horrid overnight cook left me with no hope on the pork. The first bite I had confirmed my fears, an uneven start and hot finish had dried out both of my ten pound beauties. We were able to slice the money muscle again and put together a decent looking box, but it lacked the glisten of juiciness I accomplished last time around. The judges agreed too—we scored high consistently in appearance here, but so low in taste and tenderness that were we left in the bottom ten.
Finally came brisket, which I assumed suffered the same fate as the pork after the horrors of the cook the night before. It was the miracle of miracles then to find that this brisket was the first we've ever done that sliced well and was somewhat juicy. It still didn't taste like a top ten brisket to me though, but the rest of the team was digging it more than anything else that came out of the smoker that day, so that gave me a feeling of pride and hope.
With the turn-ins all done and that rough cook behind me, we took a celebratory shot followed by some rest, and then came clean-up duty. This is where the team really shined—with me running on empty and trying to get over what I thought was a wasted opportunity to show off my skills, everybody really pitched in to get our camp taken down and packed into the van in just an hour. This is usually at least a two-hour, arduous process for me and the wife, so I couldn't have been more grateful for the help at that moment.
Making quick work on the packing, we had time to meander the boardwalk and take in the brisk day and fresh ocean air. We strolled down to see the destruction the fire left the weekend before, as well as get some more fried food.
Then came the long wait for the awards, which started almost and hour and half past their scheduled time. It was so long that the rest of the team had to depart. I was also so eager to get home, and so sure we weren't going to win a thing, that I started to consider bailing myself.
When the awards finally commenced, they were done in expeditious fashion. So when chicken flew by with no call for "The Meatwave," I pretty much thought our one chance passed us by in a heartbeat. Ribs and pork came and went with no call for us as expected. Then there was brisket, and as the calls went north of fifth place, I resigned myself to total failure. Thoughts that were popping into my head all day about competitions maybe not being my thing, started to solidify—if I can't come out and compete to win, maybe I can no longer justify the expense and time I'm putting in. I was readying myself to book it after the last few calls—possibly even packing it in for good—when it happened..."Third place, and this is a new one, The Meatwave!"
Hells Yeah! Any inklings of resignation instantly disappeared as I basked in our best call to date. Third place, out of 49 teams, in a category that is arguably the hardest to master, felt pretty damn good.
As the grand champion collected their trophy and loot, I scurried to the KCBS rep to get our score sheet. I was pleasantly surprised to find that through all the lows of our turn-ins, we still managed a respectable 17th place overall. So this got me thinking, even when I perceive that I'm sucking at this, it's still not as bad as I think. This has left me with renewed hope that one day the opposite of this weekend will happen—instead of everything going wrong, it'll all go right, and we'll have a shot at real glory. Of course, to get there we have to keep competing, and that's exactly what I'm looking forward to doing next summer.