Monday, July 8, 2013

City Paper Interview: Pitmasters on the Perils of Barbecue Competitions

Posted By on Mon, Jul 8, 2013 at 11:32 AM

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In our discussion with some of Nashville’s best pitmasters for this week’s City Paper cover story, the topic of competition came up. It’s a sore spot among some in the barbecue community, with critics saying that the winners all taste the same, and not necessarily in a good way. Carey Bringle — who recently opened Peg Leg Porker in the Gulch — is a decorated veteran of the barbecue competition circuit. Pat Martin (of Martin's Bar-B-Que) and a group of chefs and pitmasters formed the Fatback Collective team to try and combat the homogenization of competitive barbecue, finishing third at Memphis in May in 2011 (a fine account of that attempt was documented by Wright Thompson). Will Newman is the owner of Edley’s Bar-B-Que, with locations in 12South and East Nashville. Molly James runs the Nashville-area Jim ’n Nick’s restaurants. Jack Cawthon has been selling barbecue in town for four decades, most recently in his new third store, near Charlotte and 16th Avenue North. Here’s an excerpt from the discussion:

Pat Martin: I haven’t done the competition thing other than here and there, like with Carey or John Willingham, but competition barbecue to me is — I think it’s been great and it’s been real bad. And specific to this question, I mean, quit wrapping it, quit injecting it, and quit doing all this shit to it and just cook it. Just, you know, time and real wood fire and salt and black pepper, whatever else you want to throw in on your rub, but, you know, people are constantly trying to figure out a way, like Carey said, to rush it and speed it up, and, you know, just don’t do it if you’ve got to speed it up. I mean people wrap it so they can speed up their ribs so they can get them done faster. I guess to the home cook, they sit around and watch these barbecue pitmasters, and they think that’s the — that’s what you have to do because they’ve won championships. Well, we all know these judges are — I mean, the stuff you’d eat at these competitions … I mean, I’ve judged at Jack Daniels twice and I’m telling you it is — some of it is absolutely inedible.

Will Newman: Plus they do the chicken now …

Pat Martin: Yeah, like in a little muffin thing and all that.

Will Newman: They’re all the same, covered in red sauce.

Molly James: Covered in sauce and injected with all of that stuff

Pat Martin: The brisket I had at Jack Daniel’s, every one of them tasted like I was eating beef bouillon, and they were all stabbed. You could see the stab marks. I would hold it up. Amy Mills was behind me, and I’d go, what is this shit? And it was all beef bouillon. They were just injecting the piss out of it with this beef flavor, and I don’t know, I guess I’m a traditionalist, and I just think that just finding a real good cut of meat and, you know, a 12-pack of beer and some salt and some wood coals and just enjoy it.

Carey Bringle: There’s been a lot of bastardization of the barbecue with — you know, I think like Pat said the competition has served good and bad. The stuff that you got at Memphis in May, you know, 25 years ago was very different barbecue than you’ve got now.

Pat Martin: That was real barbecue.

Carey Bringle: You know, and even up until probably eight or nine years ago, you know, Memphis in May barbecue was a very traditional barbecue. KCBS [Kansas City Barbecue Society] came out with a marketing machine, and really I think changed the landscape of competition barbecue. And unfortunately, in my opinion, you’ve got a commingling of the judges and the styles, and I think that it has brought down the level of the barbecue.

City Paper: You think everything’s trending towards the middle?

Carey Bringle: No ... it’s trending towards the KCBS side. I don’t think it’s trending towards the KCBS side, I can tell [it to] you for a fact.

Pat Martin: I’m a member of the KCBS and Memphis, but that’s just because I support barbecue. But Carey’s right, it’s definitely — it’s all about sugar and candy.

Carey Bringle: And that’s a good and a bad. So I don’t want to dog KCBS in the fact that they’ve done a lot to promote the world of barbecue, they’ve done a lot to get it out there in more people’s hands, but at the same time you’ve got judges that may have never cooked barbecue in their life, period. And they go to a one-day class and they can be a judge. And they’ve been told by somebody this is what is good. And, you know, it’s the taking the pork and sloppy-joe-ing it, cutting it into disks, cutting it into cubes, and for me, that’s not barbecue. But if we’re doing a competition, you know, it’s — I’ve got younger guys on my team, and we’re doing a competition, and if you want to win, that’s how you put it in the box. And I used to sit there, and we have a break in the team. You know, you’ve got me and guys that have been going for 10 years that are like [cursing] and you’ve got the younger guys going, "Hey, you want to win or not?" And it is a personal struggle on how much you want to bastardize the 'cue or how much do you want to win. Do you want to be true to what you think is barbecue or do you want to win at that particular competition?

Pat Martin: That’s why the Fatback Collective went to Memphis in May, was strictly out of a conversation that can you go down there to a completion and place and not do all this shit, you know. And we didn’t win. We came in third, but that was good enough for us to say, well, we proved you can — good barbecue is still on people’s palates, you know, whether they know it or not. And I don’t know, man, I’m with Carey. I just think it’s been bastardized.

Carey Bringle: I am passing a lot of my team stuff on to younger guys on my team that have a different mindset that didn’t grow up with it that are interested in the competition. They don’t want to open restaurants, they’re not wanting to serve the general public, but they have a completely different view about it than I do. And I can tell you they will win a lot more than I have ever won in any competitions, I guarantee you that.

Pat Martin: They’re going to drink less than you did, though.

[Laughter]

Carey Bringle: To me, a competition, we’re winners if we go down there and we all enjoy hanging out and have a good time. So for me the trophy is a secondary thing. For these guys, the trophy is the thing. But they will bastardize that 'cue like I wouldn’t dream of doing, but they’ll win. They will win doing it.

City Paper: Jack, you’ve never done any competition, have you?

Jack Cawthon: No.

City Paper: So from an outsider’s perspective, what do you think all of this competition barbecue that you read about and you see on TV.

Jack Cawthon: I think it’s all good and it helps barbecue. I like to take care of customers, and I’m old-fashioned kind of here about doing the barbecue the right way, using either hickory or coals or, you know, slow-cooking it and taking care of the customer. And that all over the country, you know, I’m just trying to stay back home to take care of the customers. Take care of Nashville. I mean, I’m out there. I’m out there. I know what’s going on and everything, but as far as me having to compete and all ...

Carey Bringle: I think that all of this room agree that now — and a buddy of mine in Kentucky said it, the most important trophy to win is the green ribbon. I mean, we want to make money selling our barbecue and keep our customers happy. I think, you know, for me, competition is fun if I can go down and have a fun time. I don’t stress about it. We lose, we lose. I’ve lost plenty of times, probably a lot more than people think. If we had a good time, I hadn‘t lost.

Pat Martin: But you’ve lost putting out some amazing stuff, because I’ve been there to taste it, man. So you’ve lost with some amazing food.

Carey Bringle: I mean, you know, we’ve had fun. It’s about — Pat and I have gone and competed together and had fun hanging out and having a good time and being with that group of people. But it’s — you know, when you start to — we call it "barbtude." When we see people start to get an attitude with their competition, they take it too seriously, they’ve got barbetude.

[laughter]

Dave Johnson coined that term, so you’ve got to give him credit, not me.

Will Newman: 80 percent of the people competing.

Pat Martin: 80? You mean 95.

Carey Bringle: I’ve seen it in the KCBS circuits, but I don’t see it in the MBM [Memphis] circuit. The MBM folks seem to have more laid-back party get-together kind of time, whereas the KCBS guys seem to be more me and my wife against the world, fuck everybody else. Quiet time at 10 p.m. The first time I did a KCBS competition, they almost threw me out four times because I didn’t know what the hell quiet time was. I was like, "What do you mean quiet time in a barbecue competition? What kind of bullshit is that? It’s about staying up and having a good time. We’re getting our second keg delivered here."

[laughter]

I mean, you know, I think barbecue is about friends and family and about who you’re around.

Will Newman: Amen.

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