Monday, March 23, 2009

Stop Judging and EAT it already

Got to thinking the other day, why do so many people choose to judge every piece of BBQ they eat like they are some sort of all-supreme bbq judging deity?

Before I get too far, let me state that if you are at contest judging, then by all means take every bite, smell, taste as serious as possible. That’s why your there. You owe it to the cooks and the organizers and ultimately yourself to do your best to judge the tastes, smells, textures…to the best of your ability.

What I’m talking about is the person who walks into a restaurant and orders a ½ lb of brisket. Or maybe pulls over at a roadside stand for a pork sandwich, or is eating ribs at a ribfest on a hot summer evening. They carefully analyze and scrutinizes every millimeter of this piece of meat. With perfectly choreographed fingers, the rib bone or brisket slice is twirled and spun so the front side and back side and all over can be analyzed. Then the morsel is placed between the teeth, and they gently try to glide through the meat like a precision cutting instrument. The bite is savored and the palate absorbs all sorts of complex flavors…intertwining of sauce and rub…the subtle hints of smoke…is it hickory….


It’s a rib. It’s a pile of pork. It’s a couple hunks of brisket. Some pit boss cooked it for you. It’s BBQ, now just eat it. BBQ is made to be enjoyed not analyzed.

Ironically, competition cooks are often the most likely to break this rule of BBQ etiquette. We spend so much time seeking perfection that we can never really shut it off no matter where we go. We are constantly comparing how this stacks up against our own ribs. The nature of most competition BBQ is to impress people (read judges) with one bite. It all comes down to that single opportunity to connect with and impress the judges. Formulating opinion about BBQ with one bite is absurd. At a contest, there is no choice. But if you’re not at contest, eat it like it’s meant to be eaten, an indulgence in porcine or bovine morsels that are consumed with gluttonous abandon that would have made Roman royalty envious.

Recall the first time you started preparing BBQ food for people. You saw their eyes roll back in the head. You heard the guttural grown of pleasure. You saw the eyes light up and you watched them dive back in for another helping of B A R B E C U E. The burliest men, the frailest of females, all react the same way. They dive in for more. Fresh pieces taste the best, and the best way to taste the BBQ is make sure you’re getting a new morsel often. But this one bite habit has to end, one bite…huh…how in the world can you think that’s the way BBQ should be consumed.

Next time you go into a BBQ restaurant and you order up a rack of ribs, dive in like you’re supposed to do. Leave the overly analytical efforts for the judging table. Pick up a bone, eat the meat off, grab another bone, repeat. You will feel better about eating it, and the pit boss or owner or just the worker there will notice how much you’re enjoying your meal and that is the thanks they crave.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Chicagoland BBQ gathering #3 – Smoque


Late last year, Dave Raymond and some other BBQ enthusiasts thought it would be a good idea to get other Chicagoland BBQ freaks together to chat about BBQ, especially during the frigid Chicago winters. After a little thought, it was determined that they’d go to different Chicagoland BBQ establishments around town. The only credentials required for joining this group is to have an interest in BBQ.

The Group consists of folks in the restaurant biz, folk in the meat supply biz, competition cooks, and back yard enthusiasts. The inaugural session was at a place called Honky Tonk BBQ, then the group met just before Christmas at Honey 1 on the west side. This article is about the third session and it was at Smoque. Barry Sorkin, one of the owner/operators volunteered to host the event on a Monday night, a night they’re usually closed.

Smoque – this place, as new as it is, already has a great reputation as a true BBQ stop. Great TV coverage, and some great reviews mean the place is hopping most of the time. This is a great testament to Barry and his partners, because they did their homework on how to do it right and so far so good. As for the reviews, check out their webpage, they do a great job at explaining all that.

The Food

The team at Smoque has a reputation for having great authentic BBQ. Well this could have been their toughest crowd of critics yet, a bunch of know-it-all BBQers coming in to eat their food. They rose to the challenge and performed quite well.

Appetizers – Jalepenos stuffed with sausage, wrapped in bacon, and cooked in the smoker until done. What’s not to like? This modified ABT was a great way to get started.

Pork – Barry gave us a pig picking treat. He cooked about a case of some very special Berkshire pork butts, plopped them in front of everyone, handed out some rubber gloves, loaves of white bread and cole slaw. We were asked to just dig in. This Berkshire pork is richer than anything I’d expected. And what better way to get started than to dig into some awesome pork.

The Platter – They decided to give everyone a “little” sample of everything. Back ribs, Spare ribs, a Texas sausage, brisket, mac-n-cheese, beans. Nobody was going home hungry. All I can say…if you’re in the city, and your hungry, this is a place to take care of that appetite.

The Event

Sitting here now, a couple days afterwards, I’m trying to recall the feeling, and the only thing that comes to mind is festiveness. There were 60 folks who were happy to be with others who were crazy about BBQ. Lots of ideas were exchanged for upcoming events. One theme was definite; this group is primed to take the BBQ word to the people. Now its just answer the question, how to execute that task.

The other theme that’s evolving out of these sessions is that by spreading the word about BBQ as cuisine, all the participants stand to benefit. A collective effort to promote BBQ will help everyone, and it’s a lot easier taking on the “cuisine-in-a-can” places like Applebee’s or Chili’s collectively than individually. Wayne Mueller from Louis Mueller’s in Taylor, TX conveyed a similar message (see earlier Blog about Louis Mueller's). They have an extremely dense collection of BBQ restaurants in a sparsely populated area, yet they all manage to make a go of it…for generations. But this is something they all understand, in order for them to do well, people have to know about BBQ in the first place and each place has an interesting dependence on the success of the other. Sure in Texas, BBQ comes second nature to even the most common folks. Chicago is a little different. Some preaching still needs to be done about this great cuisine. That’s the lesson we all can take away from these sessions. Do not hesitate to get out and spread the word about this fine cuisine.

Barry and his gang at Smoque set a high standard for how to make and serve BBQ as well as how to host such an event. Their great food and hospitality make it easy…and genuine…to recommend to all our friends and families to get out and try their local BBQ place.

The Next One – a date hasn’t been set, but the venue has been chosen…Mr. Mark Link graciously volunteered his place Uncle Bub’s in Westmont to host the next event. I can’t wait!!!

Monday, March 2, 2009

You Que, I Que, Who Que's, We all Que

Just a little fun today...only today go to and check out the name. Its Dr. Suess's birthday today so I'll post one BBQ competition tip for each correct identification of which Dr. Suess book the Google letters came from.

G - ???
O - ???
O - ???
G - ???
L - ???
E - ???

I don't know for sure, but I'm pretty confident these folks in charge of creative at google found these images in the actual books themselves. See I have three kids, and as much as I loved Suess books growing up, I like them even more as I read them to my kids.

The challenge will likely have to end tonight sometime as the picture won't be there for long.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

True BBQ - Elgin, Tx

We strolled out of Taylor CafĂ© late that Friday afternoon, with not a care in the world. Into the Chevy we pile again, pondering where to next…someone suggests Elgin, so that goes into the GPS…we’re already on the road, so it was an easy choice. A couple miles out of town our Canadian guest is amazed at the little shack on the side of the road with a big sign above it saying “GUNS”. Some old west traditions never die. The landscape between Taylor and Elgin is gentle. Trees and grasses are springing to life in the early spring sun. Ranches and acreage just pass by. Our conversations resume a breakneck pace, usually a couple going on at the same time.

As we approach the intersection to turn into Elgin, we notice Southside Market on the corner. We take a quick vote, unanimous to head in. At the NBBQA conference, Southside was featured in a couple presentations, branding and marketing. It was here that we first heard Bryan Bracewell speak of how they re-invented their brand image. He shared his passion for the family business and some of the challenges of being a 3rd generation owner. His motivation for growing this operation came naturally to him and his enthusiasm was contagious to those who met him. It made perfect sense to experience first hand the lessons we learned just one day earlier.

Our bellies were filled to capacity, so we stumbled and groaned our way out of the truck. The first thing we noticed was application or yesterday’s lesson: branding. The Southside Market emblem, sort of a coat of arms was prevalent everywhere you looked…and we hadn’t even entered the building yet. Stepping in the door you quickly realize this was a polar opposite operation at the front than from the previous two establishments. This place was meticulously clean. Everywhere you looked, Southside Market shields smiled at you. Merchandise was everywhere…bottled goods, apparel, packaged items, a full service meat counter, and of course the restaurant.

We casually strolled to the meat counter. Dave asked, “Is Bryan around?” Almost on cue, Bryan turned the corner. We introduced ourselves; a couple of us reminded him that we met him the day prior. Within minutes we were ushered through a door or two, embarking on our tour of Southside Market’s operations. This included a little extra since they not only produce sausage for consumption at the restaurant, but for regional retail distribution as well. This is a USDA approved and supervised operation and there’s nothing small about it.

Bryan spent a couple minutes giving us a family history, explaining how their revised brand vision had to be not only developed, but also sold to every interested party in the family, not a small undertaking with his grand parents. His commitment to his family is evident; it’s a commitment to take this brand to the next heights. We donned our hair nets and moved into the sausage making facility. Huge sausage stuffers, smokers, racks, storage…all the pieces for what it takes to sell LOTS of sausage. All the time the Southside Market shield was everywhere.

We moved from the sanitized confines of the sausage making part of the operation to where the smoking magic happens. Massive pits, smokers making brisket for the next day churning away, friendly staff everywhere were just indications that this operation had taken itself into the 21st century not only very well but with a passion that was undeniable.

We finally made it back out to the dining area. Bryan called back to his eager kitchen staff to let them know we wanted a “little sample platter”. We got drinks and started sauntering to our seats. Bryan emerged with one of the most incredible “little sample platter” I’d ever seen. It was huge.

Bryan let us know we didn’t have to eat it all, and he was also heading home. The time had come for him to enjoy time with his twin boys, the 4th generation Bracewells. His hospitality, passion, enthusiasm, dedication to his work and his family were a joy to witness.

There we sat, staring at this mountain of food. We dove in. Brisket and sausage and ribs and chicken and pork steak and…all so good. It was like Thanksgiving dinner sitting here with this bunch of BBQ freaks. We laughed until we cried, or maybe it was the jalapenos. We nibbled and picked until the brisket and sausage was gone. The 5 of us bonded that day, and there couldn’t have been a better way to end this True BBQ journey. There were other BBQ joints to hit, but not today.

We climbed back into the truck and rode into the sunset. How better could this adventure be scripted, an afternoon of experiencing the emotions of True BBQ capped by a perfect sun setting on the west Texas horizon? Just a couple days earlier we hardly knew each other, now, each of us feeling the effects of endorphins from our protein overload, knew we had forged new friendships, with each other, with True BBQ.

Brief Recap of True BBQ
To put a definition to “True BBQ” is doing it a disservice. It must be experienced. The 5 of us were fortunate to experience first hand some great examples; the perseverance of Vencil Mares, Wayne Mueller’s commitment to tradition, and Bryan Bracewell’s dedication to his family. But the glue that bonds all of them, their families, their staff, is deep-rooted passion; a passion for sharing a cuisine that is capable of conjuring such strong emotions of pride, Texas pride or American pride. Thanks again to all of you!