Two White Hall men participate in competitions where their competitors are willing — much of the time — to share their tips for success.
Smoking barbecue pork, beef and chicken in competition, sometimes under adverse conditions, can be trying, acknowledged Jerry Smith and Trey Buckner Saturday, while preparing meat samples for judging at the Smoke on the Water BBQ & Music Festival in Pine Bluff’s Regional Park.
They have been demonstrating their skills barbequing in the competition since 2006. “We like to cook,” explained Smith.
While Buckner specializes in beef brisket, they enter all four categories — chicken, pork ribs, pork butts and brisket — when time away from their day jobs permit.
Saturday’s competition mirrored many they attend — 42 “professional teams” and 10 “backyard teams” — entered in competition for cash prizes and bragging rights.
They have won a few titles and placed in the top five in others, taking home first place in ribs last year at the White Hall Founders Day barbecue contest.
Their team, Fowl Smokin’ Swine, was surrounded by competitors Saturday. Candy Weaver of Pine Bluff, president of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, was on one side of their trailer, while a father-in-law and son-in-law team from Bryant and Jonesboro was encamped on the other side.
Two men in a golf cart circled the parking lot that was temporary home to a number of competitors. “We are sniffing out the competition,” one of the two said with a smile. “We have found some sure winners.”
The smokers and cookers used by the teams vary widely. Weaver, who cooks solo, has a customized rig, complete with an electric fan to help control the temperature. Fowl Smokin’ Swine’s cooker has been adapted with a sensitive electric thermometer to monitor the temperature.
Logistics can get complicated, Buckner noted. Smith’s father, Larry Smith of White Hall, is the third man on the team and is responsible for handling logistics.
“If he quits, I quit,” Buckner emphasized.
Second-guessing the judges is as important as barbecuing skills, Jerry Smith said. “Presentation is everything.”
Some judges favor simple presentations — just the meat — with no garnish. Judging is done “blind” with only numbers, no names, on the white containers that were turned in.
Smith took no chances, arranging a bed of lettuce for the cooked meat he submitted for one category.
With judges from as far away as Wisconsin, deciding on a sauce or no sauce can become a crucial decision. Some go high-tech, like the Killer Hoss team from north Mississippi. Malcom Reed explained why his brother, Waylon, had a small video camera on the bill of his baseball cap: They will later look at the video and we critique their presentation “to see what we did wrong.”
Timing is everything, Weaver said. She was facing a deadline to turn in one category for judging and was unhappy with the temperature in her cooker. She borrowed several coals from a neighboring competitor to quickly raise the heat level.
If, for example, samples for beef brisket are due at the judging table at 1 p.m., a competitor has between 1 and 1:05 to deliver the white container of meat. It is too late if you arrive one second past 1:05. The competitors come in all ages, shapes, genders and races. Some walk casually to the table to turn in their meat samples, while others race up in golf carts.
The father-in-law/son-in-law team was still debating their presentation as the clock ticked away. Some judges like the meat “pulled pork,” while others prefer the meat cut in slices or chunks. The two compromised and served both in their samples delivered to the judges’ table with seconds to spare.
“A lot of it is luck,” the father-in-law explained.
Saturday’s competition was compounded by the rain.