“This is my crack habit right here.” That’s how Tom Bera of the Philly Blind Pig BBQ team describes competition barbecue in a new documentary, American Smoke. Bera’s comparison is not only a comment on how addictive the competitions are and the high of winning one, but he’s also telling us that it costs a lot of money. If you watch BBQ Pitmasters, you might be familiar with some big names like Myron Mixon and Johnny Trigg that have brought in sizeable paychecks on the circuit, but it’s not a money-making venture for most. It’s all for the love of the game, and that’s the story that American Smoke tells.
The film tells that story using profiles of those without household names. Tom Bera of Philly Blind Pig BBQ, Sal Gobat of Smoking Gnome BBQ, Chris Hart of Wicked Good Barbecue, Paul Huff of Gonehoggin’ BBQ Team and Denny Mike of Denny Mike’s rubs and sauces all get significant camera time. There is also some powerful stuff from the Baron of BBQ, Paul Kirk, who provides plenty of commentary. With good characters, a vibrant soundtrack and plenty of meat close-ups, it makes for an entertaining eighty-five minutes. If you liked the first season of BBQ Pitmasters, then this film is for you.
As I said, nobody seems to make any money. After you buy meat, wood, seasonings, equipment and account for travel costs, it’s even hard to break even if you win at the smaller competitions. So it was ironic to hear Paul Kirk say the most detrimental thing to the world of competition barbecue these days is money. I wasn’t the only one who found it odd. Another barbecue competition legend Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe had this to say about Paul Kirk (PK):
@BBQsnob Not yet. Just haven’t taken the time. PK is a dinosaur. That $$ line is the same old from guys who can’t keep up. .
— Ray Lampe (@DrBBQ) October 25, 2013
If you still think a venture into competitions would be worth your time and effort, then this film is a good place to start. You get honest footage about what it’s like to cook on site all night long as well as a good peek into what it takes to compete in the four categories of the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) – chicken, pork butt, pork ribs, and brisket. There’s a brief mention of whole hog cooking as required by the Memphis Barbecue Network, but just as much time is spent on garnishing a box.
There’s plenty of detailed food footage. Prepping, seasoning, smoking and finishing are all highlighted for each cooking category. I saw much less injecting than I expected, but sugar in every form was out in full force. Competitors often amp up seasonings and pour on the sweet to excite the tastebuds of judges. There is one scene where chicken thighs are encased in a thick layer of honey. A little later Paul Huff tells the camera about his pork method. “We’re going to come back and glaze it again. It’s just a different layer of flavor to go on. It’s something to set me apart form everyone else.” This is the same line you hear from the rest of the group, but literally everyone else is doing the same thing. Setting yourself apart is harder than just building layers of flavor.
One of those methods for brisket is described as “hot-tubbing.” It’s where the brisket is sliced, then set to bath in a vat of drippings and beef broth. I’ve judged a few competitions and found all of the brisket to taste like broth, and hot-tubbing might be the culprit. This is done to combat the biggest issue in competitions – the time lag between box preparation and when the judges eat it. A slice of brisket could be sitting around for thirty minutes before someone takes a bite of it. The mantra of Paul Huff, “give it to them hot,” and “make it juicy” becomes difficult to achieve.
Some cooks resort to shortcuts like foil wrapping and braising to keep their meat moist. Paul Kirk added some sage levity to that discussion. “The biggest trend is everyone’s looking for shortcuts. Barbecue isn’t a shortcut thing…They’re wrapping and cooking in foil. And one of the questions I ask is ‘ Okay, what do you think about parboiling?’ ‘Oh God, that’s heresy!’ Well wait a minute. If you put those ribs or brisket in heavy-duty foil, you’re putting a liquid in there, you seal that up – you’re steaming ‘em. What’s the difference?” The answer? There is no difference.
Along with honey baths, foil wrapping, and hot-tubbing, there’s some real culinary thought and skill that goes into some of these entries. One team was scraping fat from the under side of a chicken skin and then using a mechanical meat tenderizer on it to ensure a crispy skin. Another team smoked several pork butts, but all at different temperatures and levels of doneness so they could vary the texture of the meat within their turn-in box. These might seem like steps that go too far for some good barbecue, but we would readily praise a chef for going to those lengths in a restaurant kitchen to ensure we had a memorable meal.
Even with the innovations on display, plenty of uncomfortable cliches remain. Nothing here will dissuade those who see barbecue competitions as the playground of overweight white guys looking to get drunk. Liquor is treated like the fifth competition category, and there isn’t a minority face in the entire film. There’s even a Confederate flag waving in slow-motion for good measure.
Cliches aside, I can’t imagine a better, more entertaining way to introduce a prospective barbecue competitor (or judge) to what they’re in for on the competition circuit. As Denny Mike says near the end of the film, “this is America at its best…It’s pure, it’s simple, it’s easy, and it’s ultimately satisfying.”