Chatelaine magazine cover

Duellin’ barbecues
by Kate Zimmerman for Chatelaine Magazine
National Magazine Award finalist, 2000, humour category

This is Q-ing like you’ve never seen it -- cooked up by fat guys named Slim and tall guys called Shorty, armed with sharpened knives and secret spices. They’re trying to prove their butts -- pork butts, that is -- are the zestiest in the land. Kate Zimmerman, wife of Calgary’s barbecue pooh-bah, tells the inside story

Show me a woman who gets her thrills from fatty meats, playing with matches, secret ingredients, code words, oddball gear, heavy drinking and spending 17 hours on something that could take 20 minutes, and I’ll show you a gal who wears size 66 underpants and lives in a trailer park. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Nope, you don’t see a lot of womenfolk in the K.C. Bullsheet, the regular newsletter of the Kansas City Barbecue Society. What you do see are men on the order of 600 pounds apiece, big refrigerator-shaped dudes with names like Otis, and Billy Bob on teams called Pork, Sweat and Beers, ZZ Chop and Hazardous Waist. Armed with basters and sprayers and special hardwoods for flavouring smoke, these “pit masters” can sit for hours pontificating on the elusive red smoke ring around the centre of a properly barbecued beef brisket. It doesn’t matter whether the good ol’ boys hail from Memphis, Tenn., home of the largest pork barbecue event in the world, or Calgary, where Barbecue on the Bow is a more modest, though popular, contest. They are united in their pursuit of perfection in one area, and one alone: Barbecue.

We’re not talking about hamburgers seared on a grill, then presented proudly by dads everywhere with the absurd boast that they’re “the best in the world.” We’re talkin’ here about barbecue, the noun, not barbecue, the verb. Real southern-U.S.-style barbecue means big cuts of thoroughly fat-marbled meat, smoked for many, many hours over smouldering charcoal and/or wood, tended as lovingly as a vintage Harley, and then served up saturated with flavour. When people sink their teeth into real barbecue, whether it’s ribs or brisket or pork butt or duck, they really do think they’ve died and gone to heaven. The meat is smoky, rich and irresistible, with a spicy, mouth-watering crust.

My husband, Ron Shewchuk, a manager with an oil company and a devoted dad, is just as capable of making scallop ravioli in saffron cream sauce as he is of rustling up a mean brisket at home on a Sunday afternoon.  There is, however, something about competitive barbecue that releases his inner Billy Bob. His transformation from suit-clad editor of a $6 billion company’s annual report to Rockin’ Ronnie, a rumpled, booze-sodden Q hound and leader of Calgary’s Rockin’ Ronnie’s Butt Shredders barbecue team, is something to see. The same is true of his teammate, Rocco Ciancio, a Calgary consultant and loving father of two, who smokes both his family’s Thanksgiving turkey and the hard-boiled eggs for his fabulous egg salad sandwiches. The team is completed by two spunky women, Kathy Richardier, a local food magazine editor and restaurant critic, and Amo Jackson, a superb cook who used to live in Texas, where barbecue rivals BS-ing as the state sport. Neither of them wears size 66 underpants, but I must say this loud and clear: these women are freaks, anomalies. I’m not sure why Kathy and Amo brave the testosterone-riddled environment of barbecue competition except that they are on a quest for the Holy Grail, which for them is great food.

Kathy and Amo’s participation aside, it’s mostly men who compete and they do so in an environment that permits them to wallow in a variety of masculine enthusiasms. Honestly, the only manly elements missing from a barbecue competition are a gigantic sports screen and busty cheerleaders.

The following is typical of a scene on the Q contest grounds. “Mmm, mmm,” grunts pit master Toots (don’t ask), honking down half a porker, guzzling a cold beer, then popping Peruvian smoked lamb hearts down his gullet, one by one. “Delicious,” agrees his wife. “But is there anything else?” She glances about for coleslaw or some other form of vegetal relief. Ha! You can forget about that on the barbecue circuit. To a dedicated competitive Q-er, a pickle dunked in batter and deep-fried is as close to a veggie as ya wanna git. Smoked pig snout? Now, that’s food.

There ain’t nuthin’ more macho than barbecue. The Q quest takes teams, oddball keeners of the the male persuasion --  tall guys called Shorty and fat guys called Slim. These hulkin’ hombres drag their metal contraptions clear across the U.S. (some of them from as far away as Australia) to one Q contest after another on what’s officially known as the Barbecue Circuit. There are about 500 individual barbecue events scattered all over the U.S. and two in Canada (in Calgary and in New Westminster, B.C.). Participants hope to sashay home with modest cash prizes and -- the real motivation behind competitive barbecue -- bragging rights.

Bragging is another of the entirely male attractions of barbecue, the aspect with the Darwinian subtext. Who can oppose your right to exist when you can claim to have picked up the prize for Best Ribs at the Great Pork BarbeQulossal in Des Moines, Iowa? Man needs ribs. This man makes best ribs. Ergo, this man is best. He must survive. Simple, no?

Philosophically, yes. But in truth, there’s nothing simple about great Q. At home, it can be achieved in some comfort. After the meat has been set inside the smoker, it is possible that the lawn can be mowed. But in the competitive environment, barbecue is the fussiest form of cooking known to humankind. The competitive barbecuer does nothing but barbecue for at least 24 hours per competition, no housework, no child-tending. You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?

This, once again, ladies and gentlemen, is why barbecue is a boys’ sport: Mr. Q gets to chug along on that one-track mind of his for two entire days. Try claiming that kind of uninterrupted interval for yourself the next time you’re making enough apple pies to see the family through the winter. In your dreams, sister.

The true barbecue enthusiast actually sleeps beside his rig (smoker) tending the pig (or whatever) through the night and well into the day of judging. Temperature and smoke are the keys to great barbecue, see, and you can’t depend on the rig (no matter whether it cost you $50 or $6,000) to keep the all-important heat evenly low.

So, there’s puttering to do, and plenty of it. At the competition, each piece of meat has to be inspected before the contest begins. Then it’s coated in a rub (a closely guarded secret blend of salt, sugar, herbs and spices concocted by the individual Q-er). The charcoal is started in an aluminum chimney. At that point, the meat is stared at in speculative fashion and remarked upon by teammates as to its size and fattiness: “That’s a nice cut of meat ya got there, Ronnie. It’s got more blubber than Shamu.” Water-soaked hardwood chips must be added to the charcoal to create the smoke that flavours the meat. Again, the type of wood is up for lengthy debate, with some favouring apple, some hickory, some mesquite, some cherry, and on and on. If the wives are there (and they usually aren’t), their suggestion that Stubbs and Remus just use up all the wood scraps littering their backyards from their unfinished projects is greeted with bristling hostility. The concept of killing two birds with one stone is not what barbecue is all about, just as it is not what being a man is all about. But I digress.

As the Q-ing continues, more fussing must take place. The meat is sprayed with juice or liquid to keep it moist. When the smoker has reached the desired, apparently stable internal temperature, the meat is set inside it.

Further monitoring, jiggling of the temperature gauge and cussing ensue. Drinks are consumed. Alarms are then set so that Rockin’ Ronnie (or whoever) can lurch out of his sleeping bag every few hours, check out the smoker’s temp, add charcoal to the bottom if necessary and muse drunkenly about the state of his brisket (no peeking allowed -- it cools down the smoker). An hour later, his liquored-up buddy Rocco wakes up and sprays his pork ribs with apple juice and goes through the whole rigmarole with his smoker. Then Rockin’ gets up again and moderates the temperature on the brisket, pops a few Tylenol, grabs his mandolin and launches into a passel of his favourite mournful hillbilly tunes, usually revolving around poor dead momma bein’ taken to heaven in a white chariot and so forth. Rocco tells him to “Shet ep.” Their toxic blend of guffawing, warbling and riffs on the subject of great meats they have known contribute to the general atmosphere of decay and poor nutrition for the rest of the night.

As morning dawns, the female team members arrive and get cooking, trying not to vent their irritation (the way a wife would) at the men’s sloppy Q hygiene, glassy-eyed demeanor and horrifying bed-head. All in all, they get along famously.

Like every Q team, the Butt Shredders live in hope that they will one day win the right to attend the mother of all barbecue competitions, the American Royal near Kansas City, Mo. You can’t take part in the Royal unless you win a qualifying event elsewhere (the Butt Shredders came second overall at BBQ on the Bow in 1999). The Royal is the fat de la fat of the circuit. It even has a $5,000 U.S. grand prize (a reminder: this is for cooking tough, cheap cuts of meat). When you see any of the Butt Shredders twitching, whimpering and moving their feet in their sleep, it’s because they’re dreaming that they’re getting into an RV, strapping in their smokers and headin’ down to Kansas City.

Now, fellow sane people, I may be Rockin’ Ronnie’s life partner, but when my feet twitch under the sheets, it’s because I’m dreaming that I’ve been set loose in New York City with a wallet-full of credit cards and a suddenly hetero Rupert Everett. Competitive barbecue’s down-home hoo-ha and its esoteric bafflegab leave me almost as cold as poor dead Momma in that bluegrass song.

The food, though, is amazing. The great thing is, Rockin’ practices at home all year long for this contest. When I decide to marinate chicken in a complicated Asian concoction featuring tamarind, gingerroot and basil, Rockin’ generally offers to cook it in the smoker. The result is irresistible chicken that people talk about for weeks, not just minutes. When we pick up a bird somewhere with the vague idea of roasting it, Rockin’ smokes it and catapults it to another level entirely. I always turn down the smoked entrails he urges on me, but barbecued brisket drizzled with homemade barbecue sauce and served on a freshly made tortilla is truly the essence of great summer eating.

So, even though my birthday and the BBQ on the Bow competition conflict every year, barbecue usually wins. I don’t mind. I get the culinary benefits without having to fire up the charcoal, make the rub or tend the smoker, much less actually compete. True barbecue is outrageously, stupendously, awe-inspiringly tasty and I invariably gobble it up. The downside is, if Rockin’ ever decides to follow his secret dream and leave me for a life on the barbecue circuit, I may end up with a real guy named Billy Bob. Because I need barbecue. Hot damn, I need it bad.

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