Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Smokin’ Dopes: The Agony and the Ecstasy

Dopes mascot Porcina, "Too Pig To Fail," is struggling with an undiagnosed malady after a summer in rehab.

Dopes mascot Porcina, “Too Pig To Fail,” is struggling with an undiagnosed malady after a summer in rehab.

 
The smoke has finally cleared. Record Archive celebrated its 40th anniversary last weekend and the Smokin’ Dopes somehow found themselves in the midst of the action. Hundreds, maybe a few thousand music enthusiasts, descended on the Archive during the course of the day, and we were in change of feeding them pulled pork and smoked turkey. To keep their energy levels up. Because shopping is… draining.

Alas, it’s likely the last public appearance of a fine year for the Dopes.

Three events, that’s about all we can handle in one year. We’re not caterers. We don’t travel the country on the barbecue-competition circuit, two-legged carnivores with tools. We eat fish and vegetables. Sushi, even. We are artists and writers and software geniuses and teachers and musicians.

Our Finest Year Ever started with Memorial Day Weekend’s Rock City Rib Fest, where the ragtag Dopes – at more than 20 strong, the largest team at the event – stunned the culinary world with a second-place overall finish in the World Bacon Championships.

And then the August demo at the Rochester Public Market. Those poor, well-intentioned people in the pop-up tent next to us, demonstrating how to prepare a healthy mango salsa, must have been flabbergasted. The same for the serious people in the tent a few yards away, handing out brochures outlining the importance of preserving wilderness waterfowl. Right in the middle of their good work drops the Manfred von Richthofen Flying Circus of barbecue teams, The Smokin’ Dopes. We were demonstrating how to pull pork, and I don’t know if anyone in the audience learned a damn thing. People just watched as we put on the show. The Official Smokin’ Dopes Band, Watkins & the Rapiers, played their sublimely subversive songs. Hogzilla, a 55-gallon drum that my neighbor Pat welded into billowing pork-rendering machine, massaged the chicken thighs, sausages pork shoulders with applewood smoke as groups of Dopes pulled pork, handed out samples and sold raffle tickets for the plates that Mark and Jones were finishing off.

And then Saturday’s Record Archive blowout, with the 40-percent-off sale drawing a huge crowd. The Dopes were an assembly line, furiously slapping together pulled pork sliders doused with our homemade fiery Carolina-style vinegar-based barbecue sauce. Bill estimates we handed out more than 300 of them. The Dopes had also cooked up eight different versions of a cranberry barbecue sauce, which we offered at a tasting station, asking folks to fill out comment cards. Raves, nothing but raves. “Do you sell this stuff?” people kept asking.

Well, no. Would you like a T-shirt?

Watkins & the Rapiers closed their set with a really fine version of The Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover” as Iron Smoke Whiskey handed out samples of its product. Near the end of our three-hour shift we took the show indoors. Archive Founding Father and lead turkey smoker Dick Storms joined the Rapiers to belt out the Director’s Cut version of his song “Barbecue” while Margaret and Jean did a demo of our turkey-bacon club sandwich, a third-place finisher at the Roc City Rib Fest. Then we raffled off six of them. With Dopes T-shirts.

But barbecue teams are always flirting with disaster and tragedy. The Dopes are no exception. On Saturday, some punk barfed about 10 yards from where we had the smoker set up. And this was at 10:30 in the morning, before we’d served any food. Sarah and Jones had to run to the grocery store for some kitty litter to dump on it.

And our mascot, Porcina, isn’t feeling well. After spending the summer in rehab – Tommy and Jen’s tool shed – odd black pits seem to be boiling up from beneath her papier-mâché skin. Some kind of fungus? One thing the Dopes don’t have on staff is a mycologist.

And perhaps the saddest tale of all, Hogzilla was unavailable for the Archive 40th. After the Public Market demo, Pat and I had loaded it into the back of his pickup for the ride home. He drove carefully, but apparently Rochester’s potholed streets were too much for the bungee cords holding it in place. Formerly holding it in place: Turning off of St. Paul Boulevard, we heard a loud, dull thud and immediately knew what had happened. Pat hit the brakes. Hogzilla had flipped over the side of the truck and landed upside down on Thomas Avenue.

Fortunately traffic was light, with just one car behind us, and it easily evaded the roadblock before driving on. (And by the way, thanks for the help, pal). I jumped out of the cab and wrestled Hogzilla to the side of the road. We loaded it back onto the truck and made it home without further incident.

But now Hogzilla sits in my driveway, lid hideously bent, like a broken jaw. It’s a tribute to Pat’s welding skills that the thing held up with little other damage. But it looks like Hogzilla’s on the disabled list for the upcoming salmon-smoking season.

You want propylene glycol with those nuggets?

One-hundred percent chicken. For now.

One-hundred percent chicken. For now.

The news on chicken nuggets is…. gross. A couple of recent studies of nuggets sold by two major fast-food outlets reveals that only 40 to 50 percent of that chicken is tender breast and succulent thigh meat. As you dig into that wax-paper box, the bulk of what you’re eating is fat, cartilage, pieces of bone, internal organs and the cells that line the skin.

Although they are frequently marketed by a man in a clown suit, chicken nuggets are actually as complex as Julia Child’s cassoulet recipe, which calls for a mere 22 ingredients. Fast food franchises typically fill out nuggets with 30 or more additives and preservatives including sugar, salt, monosodium glutamate (a.k.a. MSG), dimethylpolysiloxane (an anti-foaming agent that you’ll find in Silly Putty) and propylene glycol (it’s also in antifreeze). Understand as well that “artificial ingredients” are not food and “natural ingredients” are not necessarily good for you. Lard, for example. That’s natural.

David Katz, M.D., founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, helps us put it into proper perspective: “All of this is, of course, substantially less nutritious than what we typically think of as chicken.”

Yes. But legal. And research into fast-food hot dogs and burgers shows that they often contain less than 20 percent meat.

But food snobbery is not the intent here. Think of the faceless organization that handles your mortgage or your health-care plan. The unknown entity that sells you pharmaceuticals. The indecipherable nonsense that is booking a plane flight. The boomeranging price of gas. What institutions monitor the cost of an aircraft carrier, the ghastly low minimum wage, and which American citizens get spied on or thrown in jail because they got caught with a joint in their pocket?

There are business interests out there that can’t let a simple chicken nugget be chicken, and you expect them to treat with respect serious financial issues? Your propylene glycol intake is yet another example of why we cannot trust corporations to write the rules.

The Critical Mass

The Smokin’ Dopes rule the joint

"Pecker," standing atop the 8th-place trophy for ribs, shows off his huge family jewels at last weekend's "Leftoverfest." Click on Claire's photo to appreciate the entire effect.

"Pecker," standing atop the 8th-place trophy for ribs, shows off his huge family jewels at last weekend's "Leftoverfest." Click on Claire's photo to appreciate the entire effect.

The best the Smokin’ Dopes Barbecue Team could manage at last year’s Roc City Rib Fest was a certificate of participation and a handful of hangovers. We were determined to change that. We did. Throughout this past Memorial weekend, Ontario Beach Park echoed with the hollow thump of barbecue-fest veterans slamming their heads against their $10,000 deluxe smokers as the plucky amateur Dopes, with their collection of dented Weber grills and grease-stained smokers welded together from disparate parts, picked up three top-10 finishes in the Roc City’s 10 categories. And, as you would expect, the Dopes found time enough to get involved in a pair of festival controversies, their rebellious recipes resulting in two insane disqualifications.

What did the barbecue tour traditionalists make of us, with our twenty-some team members working like a Swiss Army clock – surely such a thing exists – to crank out Rochester-centric grilled chicken French? And a brisket with a smoke ring as delicately perfect as the rings of Saturn? And even a peanut butter and jelly cheeseburger, executed without mishap by a the team’s new kids barbecue spinoff, The Smokin’ Diapers?

Ten inspired and well-executed entries, and we still had time to gather around the early-evening campfire, drink beer, do shots of saki (plenty was left over from the meatball entry) and listen to Dana Fine play guitar.

So Monday at Kerry and Claire’s house, we gathered for the now-traditional Leftoverfest, a postmortem of what went right and wrong, as well as an opportunity to marvel at the size of the testicles sported by the gold pig mounted atop our trophy for an eighth-place finish in Sunday’s ribs competition. As Claire properly noted of our anatomically enhanced prize, “There had to be a design meeting where people got together in a room and discussed it.”

The Smokin' Dopes accept their trophy pig, "Pecker." That's only about half the team. The rest are taking pictures or drinking.

The Smokin' Dopes accept their trophy pig, "Pecker." That's only about half the team. The rest are taking pictures or drinking.

The image was appropriate, because our efforts this weekend were oversized as well. After Saturday’s New England Barbecue Society competition, the Dopes stood 17th out of 51 teams. Scott and Sue’s chicken French – featuring lightly battered, thoroughly hammered chicken breasts coated with the lemon sauce familiar to 92 percent of the restaurant menus in Rochester – finished seventh in its category. Jimmy, Lynn, Annie and Colleen’s white hots – grilled and cut on a bias, grilled again, placed on an open toasted roll and topped with a red cabbage, beets and candied bacon relish – finished 10th. Karen was on the disabled list, so Mary, Billy and Connie were called on to execute her chicken meatballs with the surprise pickled Japanese plum in the middle. Chris did bacon-wrapped sweet peppers. Joe’s ribs went up against more than 100 other competitors. The Diapers – 6-year-old Cash and 4-year old Jagger – did more than you might expect of training-wheel grillers under the watchful eyes of Cassie, Chris, Greg and Norah. Those four entries didn’t place, but looked and tasted like they could have with a more-agreeable roll of the judges’ dice. After the awards ceremony, Margaret chased down the winning meatball team and asked their secret. All it was, they said, was grilled meatballs sitting on a bed of pasta.

Not to knock the champs, whose technique throughout the weekend must have been excellent, judging by their pile of winning trophies. But this is what’s aggravating about food competition: You turn into an irritable cuss for a few weeks while perfecting an inventive idea, and the winning entry turns out to be a recipe that came from the Internet, with a presentation found at most Italian restaurants and school cafeterias.

Back to the smokers we went. Sunday’s competition was drenched in drama, high and low. Chris’ brisket was meticulously prepared, and the judges agreed that it looked awesome: all 9s and 8s on appearance. The outside bark, a salty Montreal seasoning, worked with such a big piece of meat, and was very obvious on his perfect smoke-ringed slices. Chris’ choice of taking what’s known as the “burnt ends” – the tender squares cut from the top flap, called “the point” – and simmering them in an Arthur Bryant’s style barbecue-sauce stew was daring. I cannot say why such a masterpiece got such wide-ranging scores on tenderness and taste, except to attribute it to the individual opinions on the treatment of the burnt ends, which I thought gave the entry two very diverse looks in one box.

The brisket’s failure to place was especially vexing considering what a train wreck my Sunday ribs nearly were. We’d taken a barbecue class last summer and decided to go with what we’d learned. A rub with little heat to it (contrary to my spiced-up inclinations), three hours on the smoker, then douse with honey, brown sugar and apple juice, seal in aluminum foil and place back on the smoker for an hour. Then remove from the package, put the racks back on the grill, and use a sweet sauce (again, against my instincts) in the final moments.

Trouble hit when I opened the foil packages. I’d mis-timed things a bit, taking the ribs off after less than an hour, and the brown sugar was still clearly visible on the ribs, piled up where I’d left it. I panicked. I grabbed a brush and began slopping the ribs with the pool of grease/sugar/honey left in the foil packages. To the rest of the dopes, it probably looked like I was basting the ribs. In truth, I was scrubbing them.

But, weirdly, it worked. The ribs began taking on a polished, deep red, mahogany hue. I placed them back on the grill for the final hour, basting occasionally, using no sauce, until Joe and I picked out two likely-looking racks. Margaret put down the green-leaf garnish, and off the ribs went to the judges’ tent.

So yes, I was stunned when we finished 8th out of 80 teams, about 10 of us doing the perp walk up to the front of the crowd to accept our trophy. We named the pig on top of it “Pecker.”

Now, you want to know about the controversy, right? Minutes after Rick and Monica had submitted their entry, an awesome chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto and blue cheese, a Cushman cart pulled up to our site. “You’ve been disqualified!” the aging Kansas City Barbeque Society official declared. “No stuffing! Read the rules!” Monica was extraordinarily gracious, thanking him for coming to our site and telling us about the problem. I thought the guy was a bit of a jerk, but she’s a much nicer person than I.

So the chicken was out. Pork shoulder, a weak entry for us the past two years, was next. “We finally made a good one,” I said to Chris after we’d sent it down to the judges’ tent.  Five minutes later, I heard the rumble of the Cushman. “You’ve used an illegal garnish!” our pork vet bellowed. “I can see it from here!” What, cannibus leaves? “Red lettuce!” The pork was allowed to be submitted for taste and tenderness, but without a score for appearance, we didn’t have a chance.

Ah, rules. Several Dopes noted that my habit of walking around barefoot would have disqualified us as well. The rules say team members must wear shirts and shoes. The rules say nothing about wearing pants, so we should have received extra credit there. I just thought the old guy seemed a little too eager to be busting the Dopes. I’m sure that to him, after a century of eating serious smoked meats, our ridiculous Hawaiian shirts, aprons decorated with a pig holding a joint in his mouth and our guitar-playing hangers-on seemed like we were mocking them.

Mary found the upbeat note in the disqualifications. “Hey, we can re-name our team!” she announced. “Next year we can be the Bar-B-Q DQs!”

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