Bull City BBQ Bash 2022
About ten years ago I had the thought that leveling-up The Meatwave meant heading out on the competition circuit and that led me to fundraise to start a team. After just two years of competing though, which included racking up some awards, it became clear my skills and interests lie more in recipe development for backyard cooks, so I shifted my time and monetary investments accordingly, but didn't rule out doing a competition here and there.
A year after relocating to Durham, North Carolina in 2015, I went to check out a local competition that was community run and featured pitmasters primarily all located in Durham, and that really resonated with me as something I wanted to be part of, so I made a decision to enter the following year. The only problem was that annual competition ceased to exist and it wasn't until 2021 that a new one arose—the Bull City BBQ Bash hosted by Mike D's BBQ.
I so wanted to enter the inaugural year, but the event coincided with my first in-person family gathering since the start of the pandemic, and while I had thoughts of trying to juggle both, I ultimately had to focus on family at the time. So I was eagerly awaiting to see if the event would return in 2022, and when it did, I signed myself up and jumped back into the competition game after a nine year hiatus.
The main draws of the Bull City BBQ Bash for me were: it was local, run by the community, and gave back the community. I really just wanted throw my support into such an event, but I would be lying if I didn't say there were some other attractive things about this particular competition too. First, it was small in scope with only ten teams total competing, and while my focus was not on winning, my odds were certainly better with fewer competitors and the prizes were also generous for the size of the event. Second, the meat was provided for us, which is always one of the larger expenses going into a competition. And finally, this was not a KCBS event, which mainly meant there were less stringent rules and I felt a little more freed from having to cook to the singular style of barbecue that seems to win the hearts of KCBS judges.
The event was also fairly short, with load-in happening at 6:00pm on Friday, and load-out at 5:00pm Saturday. While it was nice not to have to spend too much time away, the shortened timeframe also meant I had to be prepared to prep and cook everything with less time than I'm used to. To ensure things went smoothly, I planned well in the days ahead of the event, making a schedule for myself that I ended up nearly tossing out completely as we were handed our meats at the 7:00pm cook's meeting on Friday evening.
I had set cooking times for the types of meats I'm used to smoking, but as I picked up a brisket that was almost devoid of fat, ribs with little meat on the bones, and a pork shoulder way larger than I'm used to, I had to quickly recalibrate. I was pretty sure this led me to botch the majority of my meats, but as I was prepping everything for the boxes on Saturday morning, almost all the frustrations that arose in cooking were barely noticed in the final products.
The first turn-in was chicken at 10:00am and this was the only meat I prepped at home after we received an email letting us know we were not going to be getting as much chicken as we were expecting, leading to most, or all, of the competitors to bring more. We were also told we'd be getting legs, which I had not done at a competition previously, but used as a reason to teach myself how to butcher the meat in lollipop fashion. The first couple legs were a little tricky, but I got the hang of it quickly and I actually preferred butchering legs over thighs, the latter of which I remove the skin from and scrape away excess fat, something I find tedious, time consuming, and prone to error.
While chicken was the first turn-in, the legs were the last meat to hit the smoker, with mine going in at 8:00am to smoke at 225°F for an hour and half. Following that, I dunked the legs in barbecue sauce and let the sauce set over high heat on the grill, repeating the process one more time for a more even and thicker layer of sauce. When I tried one out before selecting four pieces for the boxes, I was super happy with how juicy and flavorful the chicken turned out. My main worry was they were pretty spicy, which is my personal taste preference, but almost everyone cooks towards a more sugary profile in competition. Knowing this was not KCBS judging left me with a glimmer of hope that these judges would be more open to a spicy barbecue chicken and enjoy these legs as much as I did.
Ribs were the next up, due in at 10:30am. I thought I had totally messed these up not long after they went into the smoker at 4:30am. When I dropped them in, the smoker was running perfectly at 225°F and stayed that way for a bit, but when I got up to check on them about an hour later, the temp had jumped to 325°F and it was not falling. The rub had already darkened in spots and I worried the excess heat messed up the tenderness of the meat, but I quickly adjusted by moving ribs to my other smoker that was running well.
From then on, the ribs cooked great, the bark never darkened too much, and the tenderness seemed to be pretty spot on by the time I deemed them done. I then sauced the ribs over high heat on the grill, and my wife took on the slicing duties because I'm notoriously bad at slicing. A taste test confirmed that these were pretty damn good ribs, just a tad on the dry side because of the small amount of meat and fat. Once again, I picked some of the best specimens for the box and got them turned in with a feeling of confidence.
Pork followed ribs with an 11:00am turn-in time. Of all the meats, the pork cooked the most to my original schedule and to what I'm used to. Knowing I would be getting a full shoulder, I actually brought a saw with me so I could break the giant slab of swine into two pieces that would fit into my 18.5" Weber Bullet. Pork has always been my weakest category, but this time around it turned out much better than it has at past comps, and dressed with a vinegar sauce, I thought this might just be my time to win over the judges. I was not able to slice any of the pork though since I had cooked it to around 200°F—it slices better when pulled at around 186°F—so I filled the box with some large chunks that had pieces of bark on it for maximum flavor. The remaining pork then all got shredded, dressed, and turned over for the People's Choice category.
With a brisket that had almost no fat on it, I knew this was not going to be my shining smoked beef moment. I came prepared to cook my brisket either Texas-style, with a simple salt and pepper rub, or competition style, with an injection, more complex rub, and additional cooking steps that both speed up cooking and provide extra insurance for juicy end results. I went for the later cooking strategy and got this brisket on the pit at 10:00pm. After a good bark formed, the beef was foiled along with a braising liquid, and it cooked like that until the internal temperature hit 203°F. The brisket was done way earlier than I was expecting, coming off the smoker before 7:00pm, but it stayed nice and hot in the Cambro until the 11:30am turn-in time. As I expected, the flat was somewhat dry, although it did have a good flavor. There was very little of the point section on this brisket, but there was enough to cut off some cubes to add into the box as "burnt ends," even though true burnt ends I would had recooked a bit longer with a little sauce added in. To me, this was my weakest entry, but for the brisket I was given, I also felt I did a fairly decent job in getting something serviceable out of it.
With all the turn-ins done, the rest of the day was just hanging out. In New York we usually had to travel outside of the city to comps, which meant it was hard for anyone to join us, so I was super excited that more folks could come hang out since the Bull City BBQ Bash was right in the middle of our town. Our buddy Chris lives only a couple blocks away, so he walked over multiple times and helped us out a lot in making Friday evening more enjoyable and then lending a hand with various things on Saturday, including loading the van back up in the heat. So I'm super grateful and appreciative of his company and help.
The event was open to the public starting at noon, and that's when most of our friends showed up. Here we have Sue and Chris to the left of me, with Kaitlin and her family on the right. From past experiences, I learned People's Choice is often an exercise in who can get the most friends and family to show up, and I figured I wasn't going to achieve that, but everyone still got their votes in and I felt humbled when most of them said they honestly would have voted for mine anyway, mentioned only one other team that was on par or better.
I was super happy to see Lauren show up since I just began working with her in my day job and we've only interacted virtually so far, even though we live in the same city. Lauren had her own brisket smoking happening at home that day, which was I excited to hear about, and sure hope her's turned out better than mine.
From about noon to 2:30pm there was good foot traffic at the event and we happily gave out sample of our barbecue to all who asked—this is something we're not allowed to do at KCBS events and it's always disheartening for people to ask to try some and have to say no, and then bring how way more meat than we could ever eat. While my wife did most of the serving and talking, this was my favorite part of the event, answering questions and watching folks enjoy the food. Next year I'm definitely going to cook additional so I have more to offer because we were out around 1:30pm this time.
While I still had no expectations or real hopes of winning, the fact that everything taste pretty good made me feel like I may actually get a call, but I wasn't quite prepared for calls in three categories—2nd place in ribs and brisket along with a 3rd place chicken—plus taking 2nd place overall. Per usual, pork was my weakest category, so I need to work on reformulating my recipe there, but this was the best I've ever done in a competition and the notes on the judge's scorecards showed most really enjoy every dish I turned in, even the pulled pork. These calls were really just the icing on the cake this day, because I would have left totally content empty handed as well. I'm definitely hoping to be able to return if the Bash is held next year, and this may just become the one the event that keeps me competing because it really was a great time and I'm so grateful to Mike D for putting it on in a way that brings in, and supports, the Durham community.
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Mike D Thanks for coming out. Enjoyed having you and congrats on your call ups! All of our meat came from local farms and with the exception of the pork, came from smaller farms. We do this to highlight local meat, but also to provide a challenge for the teams because the meat will be different from what is normally purchased for comps. The briskets came from Baldwin Beef Which is is yanceyville and it is grass fed beef which is more lean. Making it a challenge for competing team used to cooking thicker more fatty briskets! We love providing the meat because it puts the teams on equal footing and not who can afford the best meats.
Thanks again for competing and definitely hope to see you again next year!