Tag Archives: sportsmanship

Smokin’ in the Rain

I’m rushing through my last class of the week: 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. One of my students, a gifted writer who sits immediately adjacent to my desk says, “If I’m not done, can I stay late to work on this assignment?” Ordinarily, I might acquiesce and let her stay, for a few minutes at least; but today, by this time of day, I am ravenous, bordering on hangry. I also have a date in Salt Lake City with my neighbors, Kurt and Jonelle, good friends whose side business, Sorry Charlotte, I intend to write about. I apologize to my student’s waiting eyes: “Sorry, I have a smoking date.”

The classroom gets very quiet. I look up to a roomful of aghast thirteen-year-old faces. I’m not sure which part of my comment is more shocking – the implication of an affair or of smoking – so I rush to clarify.

“Smoking meat. With friends. At a competition in Salt Lake City… You know: bar-be-que.”*

*

When I first befriended Kurt and Jonelle several years ago, I came away with a sense of admiration. They had a poker room filled with neon signs, two ancient outhouses in the backyard, and a smoker that Kurt had repurposed from an old refrigerator. He is a born tinkerer. I’ve since come to recognize his abiding passion for neon and for smoking. Kurt often supplies wings, ribs, chicken, or pulled pork for social gatherings. As a neighbor, I am frequently assailed by the mouthwatering aromas of his practice pit runs, wafting on the eastern wind towards my front door.

For this competition, he replaced the refrigerator with an uninterruptable power source, converted from its first iteration as a back-up power supply in the basement of a school. He also brought two offset smokers for nighttime smoking and a great deal of apple wood, sourced from his native Sanpete County. (Offset smokers burn wood in a side compartment, letting smoke waft into a main compartment, where the meat cooks.)

*

Jonelle and I pull into the Sam’s Club parking lot at 4 o’clock. Kurt’s crew arrived earlier and has set up the trailer, smokers, and wood in the southeast corner of the lot. They attend the chefs’ pre-competition meeting. This competition is one of many Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) regional events in its 2017 National Pro Barbeque Tour.

Kansas City comprises one of many styles of smoking meat (other styles include Texas, Memphis, and North and South Carolina). KC-style is meat-centric, owing to its historical meat-packing roots. (Click here for a style breakdown.) Each style has devotees who swear that their style is superior.

*

Sorry Charlotte has been competing for three years. They finished their first competition in last place, but scored second in pork at the Mark Miller Subaru Spring Fling earlier this year and tenth place in ribs at last fall’s Wild West BBQ Shootout in Wendover – confidence bumps that propelled them into this KCBS challenge. All of the team members have day jobs: Kurt is an electrician by trade; Kevin, a long-time veteran in the food service industry; Luke teaches history; and Brad works in money lending. Many of their competitors have more experience and more time to practice the craft of smoking and tweaking recipes; some operate professional barbeque establishments. In light of their recent placements, it’s fair to surmise that Sorry Charlotte has the drive and potential to seriously contend with their competitors. (Although, I should add that all participants share an air of camaraderie, greeting and encouraging each other, and even offering samples of their finished products. The atmosphere in general is genial and sportsmanlike.)

In addition to the wittiest name on the competition roster, Sorry Charlotte has heart and is a labor of love among its members. Any casual observer watching the team analyze their efforts can see their sharp focus. They huddle closely and confer in quiet tones, tasting as they go: “We did that last time,” says Kurt of the pork. “I think it’s good.” Kevin nods in agreement.

As the story goes: that’s some pig.

The team will compete in all four categories: chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket, which is the most difficult to perfect. “It’s a tough hunk of meat,” says Kurt, holding up a piece of his own brisket, which is charred all around and ringed with thick pink smoke. “You’re trying to get it tender and easy to pull apart.” Challenge notwithstanding, the team seems pleased with their burnt ends.

Sorry Charlotte wants to do well, of course, but they also want to make scrumptious barbeque. Though this is my first time meeting some of the team, who warmly welcome me to share the close quarters of the trailer, I am equally impressed by their own respective fervors for the art of smoking delicious meat.

*

Jonelle and I pull up to the trailer around 9:30 on Saturday morning, after a luxurious and restful night in a downtown hotel. Rain spatters the asphalt. We find the group gathered inside and offer them drugstore ponchos, which, we realize with a pang, we forgot to give them the night before. Kurt steps outside to check the smokers, a task he and the team have repeated throughout the night. I ask him how he’s holding up. “I’m tired,” he says, smiling, but raking his hand over bloodshot eyes. By my estimation, he’s been awake for over 30 hours. He pretends to cry, but quickly stops and gives me a stern look. “There’s no crying in barbeque.”

This is Kurt, not crying.

Heavy storm winds blew through the area in every conflicting direction the night before. The dismal forecast announced snow and rain, overnight and well into the morning. We discover that weather conditions have brought the smokers’ temperature down. Kurt, in characteristic good nature, announces that the temperature’s “not ideal.” A quick brainstorm introduces the idea of setting up a canopy over the smokers. Temperatures recover within minutes. Kevin does a dance when Brad’s phone chimes.

When Kevin isn’t dancing, he’s smokin’ in the kitchen.

The group is cheerful inside the trailer, which has been retrofitted with a full prep table and second work sink. Space in the trailer is spare, so every clean counter is prime real estate, and, though Jonelle demures about being part of the team, she and Kevin’s wife, Mary, both work steadily behind the scenes to make sauces, clear spaces, and put away tools and ingredients to maximize the group’s efficiency, as do Luke and Brad. They think and operate as a true team.

Mid-morning, Kurt dresses the ribs on both sides with an inch-thick layer of brown sugar, margarine, honey, and onion powder, before wrapping the ribs in foil and returning them to finish off. Activity in the trailer increases proportionally to the proximity of noon, when judging begins. The team dips and sauces the chicken, analyzing the texture of the skin, which has been a challenge for them. (Recently, they’ve experimented with leaving half of the skins on and half off, and also with meat glue, to varying degrees of success.) Kevin’s prepped the meat boxes with beds of green leaf and romaine lettuce, on which the meats will rest, and the parsley that will garnish the finished entries. Appearance is an easy category in which to score, but even contest judges eat with their eyes first, so the team is careful to present their hard work in an appealing manner.

Kevin and Brad set up the chicken box.

These are Sorry Charlotte’s tensest moments – the half hour increments in which they cut the finished meat, analyze it for the choicest, most attractive bits, and arrange it in competition-approved clamshells to deliver to the judges. Brad and Kevin painstakingly adorn each completed dish with parsley, their eyes intent on the clock. Finished products must arrive to the judges on the minute. Even a second’s delay results in being disqualified, or DQ’d.

Once they’ve wiped the meat boxes clean of stray sauce, they secure the lids and walk the meat to the judges’ table. Their pace is stealthy and deliberate through 1:30 p.m., when they deliver their final dish – the brisket – and begin the process of cleaning up. The mood in the trailer snaps quickly back to joking and laughter.

Brad and Luke walk the meat to the judges.

*

Whether it’s the weather, the presence of a newbie interloper, or just bad luck, Sorry Charlotte doesn’t place as highly as they would like in the competition. Kurt and Jonelle return home late Saturday afternoon, a little sad, but with their thoughts on the next competition. “If you know Kurt,” says Jonelle, smiling mischievously, “by tomorrow, he’ll have a whole new game plan ready to go.” This, I think, is the biggest lesson about competitive barbeque: its participants are fierce, inspired, and unlikely to give up in the face of defeat or unremitting wind and rain. Determination and stamina hold them aloft through a long night of keeping the fires lit. They give the effort their very best. They understand, as Kurt aptly pointed out, there’s no crying in barbeque.

Many thanks to the Sorry Charlotte team for inspiring and fun insights into the world of competitive BBQ!

* Fellow spelling sticklers, take note: Meat heated by fire is commonly spelled ‘barbecue’ with a ‘c’. In this essay, I will be using a ‘q’, because the abbreviation is BBQ, not BBC.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Humble Pie

Do you see a door or a wall?

I recently received a letter from a woman living in Virginia.  A small yellow butterfly adorned her address label, and delicate blue cursive spelled out my name and address.  It took me a few moments to register who this woman was, but, when I did, I tore into the envelope to read what she sent.  I’d been hoping to hear from her since February, when I mailed her two sample essays and the obligatory reading fees – an opportunity I’d awaited since October 2010, when I first learned of the essay contest that she chairs: the MFK Fisher Award Contest.

Nervous exhilaration flooded my synapses: my breath rapid, heartbeat pulsing in my ears.  There, on the page, was the familiar logo, the organization’s name, and the names of its board of directors.  There, printed in no uncertain terms, were the names of those who won.  There, in no uncertain terms, wasn’t mine. My idol’s ghost slammed the door in my face.

*

Doors open, doors close.  I’m no stranger to rejection of my writing.  Essays that appear on the blog are automatically at a disadvantage, since many publication venues consider them already “published” and are thus uninterested in “reprinting.”  I continue to submit to those few venues that will consider my work.  I’m okay with making the best of fewer options, and this was one of them… A contest blessed by the Grande Dame herself!

MFK Fisher is a sensualist whose prolific writing on the pleasures of the plate profoundly influenced the world of food writing today.  I’ve had a crush on her since I first read The Art of Eating over a decade ago. (I’ve since read it half a dozen times more.) I painstakingly selected the two entries I sent to the contest, intent on honoring her voice, her spirit, and her life’s work.  I wanted this.  I, the resolute pragmatist, allowed myself to believe this contest might even serve as a gateway.  With the rejection letter clasped between my cold fingers, I hated myself for my optimism.

My inner teenager shrieked and mentally threw a bucket of blood red paint on the winners’ cars.  My inner grandmother clucked and shook her head, weary of a lifetime of wisdoms.  I cried all night – a wretched, inconsolable mess, leaving behind a wake of soggy tissue and useless self-pity.  Then I pried my fists from my swollen, bloodshot eyes and forced myself to stop.  I wrote the award chairwoman a thank you note; gathered up the sour, limpid remnants of my humble pie; and moved on, jaw set, all the more determined to produce the caliber of writing necessary to place in the next award contest, which occurs in 2014.

*

My husband and I live and work at a boarding school, so, between our own children and the ever-fluctuating student body, much of our day involves direct interaction with impressionable minds.  We model our behavior and actions on those qualities we wish for others to see and learn.  It’s a stance I embrace: instructive and inclusive.  Many of the students I know have graduated but continue to follow my written work, either on Facebook or directly on the Eater Provocateur blog.  How many times have I told them to keep faith in themselves?  What would they think if they saw me curled in fetal position and wailing like a toddler on a sleep-deprived tirade?  What message am I sending my kids?

I was not born with an honest, easy sense of sportsmanship.  I suffer Scrabble poorly.  But I am trying.  I want them – my children and the students – to be strong, proud, and unafraid of facing frightening challenges, even if they don’t surmount them (though I desperately hope they will).  I want them to learn how to quickly recompose themselves after the wind has been knocked from them, and to extend a hand to those who have fallen around them.  I want them to be Davids to the Goliaths of life.  So I have to be all of those things myself.

*

Disappointment is a condiment that overwhelms the palate, rendering all things bitter and unsavory.  I am not proud of my unprofessional petulance.  In my defense, I would like to point out that a year and a half is a really long time.  Most contest deadlines range between three and six months; the MFK Award contest occurs every two years.  The anticipation kills.  Between October 2010 and the contest deadline in April 2012, I’d taken the MFK Fisher award out for many dates and we’d settled into a comfortable relationship.  I’d visualized our eventual marriage, our idyllic future.  The breakup was devastating.

The official results have not yet been published online, so it would be unethical to disclose the winners’ names.  I can say that the winners are cookbook authors, bloggers, chefs, and restaurateurs… even authors of highly regarded memoirs on the New York Times booklist.  Most of my competitors operate in much larger social and professional spheres, and have resources like agents, assistants, editors, and publishers.  Many have books of their own.  I competed against 82 talented female writers, each of us working in our own way to bring back the pleasures of the table and raise culinary awareness.

Now that the sting’s faded, I feel proud that I contended with such strong writers, especially as a newbie lacking in external professional representation.  That counts for something.  Clearly, we are all deeply passionate about the culinary world, contributors to culture and literature – also important.  But defeat is defeat, and disappointment is a key ingredient in humble pie. Other ingredients include hubris, self-doubt, lack of confidence, and a fundamental oblivion to the enormity of the odds at hand.  Humble pie pairs well with tequila.

*

I write notes to myself:

Be kind to Jules… She’s the only one of you that you’ve got!
Keep fighting!
Ambition is not a dirty word! 

I write notes to the students:

It doesn’t hurt to dream big – dreams are free!
Life is short – live each moment!
Never be afraid to show your compassion, intelligence, humor, and talent!

And yet.

I won’t lie.  I thought briefly – again, petulantly – about quitting: ending the blog, giving up on submitting essays to venues.  I thought: What’s the point? Why do I even try? I can’t go through this again!  Why is it that in a moment of turmoil, my first impulse was to abandon the passion that sustains me?  This is my forum for singing my love.  Giving up is not an option.

Doors open and doors close.  The trick, as ever, is finding the right doors to open at the right time, and never relinquishing hope that they are there to be found.

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