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The Critical Mass

Baby Back Ribs (Human Division) and hugs

Autopsies can really hurt. Especially if that’s you under Jack Klugman’s scalpel.

The Smokin’ Dopes have spent the past week re-examining our efforts at the Memorial weekend’s Roc City Rib Fest. Especially in light of the fact that according to the judges – and this is certainly a feeling shared this week by the Newt Gingrich For President Campaign – our numbers are not what we’d hoped for. Despite the fact that entries such as our African-spiced Cornish game hens, tri-tip steaks and grilled scallops on star fruit seemed like winners, our approval ratings were trapped down around Anthony Weiner’s underwear.

Damn, I wanted to be walking up to the stage to claim a trophy, just like the Smokin’ Hoggz BBQ, high-fiving with such vigor that one of their team members accidentally poked another in the eye with a finger. When the grand champion was announced, and it was the Smokin’ Hoggz again, I wanted to be the one who went up to the stage to claim the trophy, while holding a ice-cold beer can to my eye, to keep down the swelling.

Some of the judges stopped by The Smokin’ Dopes site after the smoke had cleared, mainly because we seemed to have a lot of beer (At last, we’d found something the judges liked). Other teams drifted over, including Al from The Smokin’ Hoggz, and the team’s mascot,  a darling little dog named Shakes. Prodded by beers and tequila, these folks shared secrets. Secret handshakes with barbecue-stained finger stuff  like how to cut your brisket into tasty little blocks. And don’t let too much sauce obscure your rib rub.

Of course, maybe it’s all just a crap shoot, like one of the judges told us. After Saturday night’s competition, three of us stayed overnight at the site, smoking the big meats for Sunday’s showdown. At about 1 a.m., two dozen guys (these competitions are mostly beer-keg shaped humans) were dipping chips into a big cast-iron skillet of a spicy Mexican cheese/pepper/bean/chorizo dip that one of them had just concocted. And here’s some guy bragging, “I smoked my ribs for 2 1/2 hours, and still  finished in 52nd place. I beat more than half the field.”

Sometimes half-assed gets ‘er done. Everyone else had their ribs on for six to eight hours. That’s the accepted standard. Gotta break down the meat, is what I’ve read.

But no sage hit home like Al of The Smokin’ Hoggz. “Two years ago, we were just like you guys,” he said. “Then we took the barbecue class.”

Barbecue class? Isn’t watching Steven Raichlen on The Food Channel good enough?

So we gathered at Scott and Sue’s house for Monday’s post-fest autopsy leftovers. Claire’s cupcakes topped with a piece of candied bacon was the most-popular thing the team had made all weekend, and it wasn’t even an entry. We should have slipped those into the bacon category, instead of the Korean pork belly wraps I did. We should have taken the advice of our next-door neighbors, Sweet Chicken, and scraped the fat from the underside of the skin on our chicken thighs. And we needed more planning and practice time. A team bowling meeting was called for next January, when the categories were announced, so we’d have plenty of opportunity to lay our evil plans. Please, please, let there be a Baby Back Ribs (Human Division) at next year’s competition.

And this week, Karen found a July barbecue class in Buffalo. It’s expensive, but a handful of The Dopes seem ready to sign up. Take it to the next level. We are well positioned for Comeback of the Year.

Even the champs never stop learning. “No more high fives,” the Smoking Hogs’ Al had said, thinking of his poor teammate’s swollen eye. “Just hugs.”

The Critical Mass

Smokin’ Dopes working with the Feds

The most-important number of the week: 145. Right on cue for the Smokin’ Dopes, who are competing this weekend in the Roc City Rib Fest, the Federal government has announced that the internal serving temperature required for pork has been lowered to 145 degrees.

This is official debunking of my 83-year-old mother’s lifelong contention, brought to this country from Europe in the early 20th century by her Eastern European immigrant relatives, that children are still dying of trichinosis. That pork can only be served vulcanized. She won’t accept eating pink meat any more than she would accept eating a dog, but the rest of civilization is moving forward.

Yes, we have an official logo.

Yes, we have an official logo.

At Ontario Beach Park, the Smokin’ Dopes (2010 champions in the hamburger category) have been assigned a spot waaaaaaaaaay out on the edge of the competition, perhaps in the hope of shielding innocent children from whatever it is that a team named the Smokin’ Dopes might be up to. But judge not, lest ye be summoned Heavenward in the next Rapture. While the rest of Christianity was standing in its driveways last weekend, waiting to be taken (after having arranged for pet sitters) the heathens who are the Smokin’ Dopes were holding a rehearsal for the Memorial Day competition.

In what looks like a strategy to break up the Dopes, there is no hamburger category this year. We are undaunted. As we broke training camp Sunday evening, Chris’ tri-tip steak was in mid-season form, as tender as Newt Gingrich’s ass after the paddling he took last week. And the Cornish game hens – triple teamed by Rick and Monica and free-agent acquisition Karen – were throwing heat. Joe assumed the role of pit boss (I was dealing with a well-earned hangover following the previous night’s Bob Dylan Birthday Party) and delivered well-reviewed ribs. I think we’ve got the scallops, beef brisket, chicken and pork shoulder figured out.

Pork belly. That’s my assignment. I had seen pork belly only once before in my life. And no surfing of the Internet prepares you to cook that unpredictable hunk of stomach muscle, surging with uneven dunes of fat. It’s basically a pork brisket, a sprawling meat blanket of unsliced bacon. To get it to that point of delightfully crispy exterior and tender interior will require some pink peeking out of that pork. It is my mother’s worst nightmare, but now perfectly legal. Turn your back, Ma. I’m gonna beat that pork belly like a railroad hobo.

The Critical Mass

Tastes like a six-ton bird

Paleontologists have surmised that while Tyrannosaurus rex meat probably didn’t taste like chicken, it very likely did taste like the meat from some kind of a bird. The logic is that birds and crocodiles taste similar, and both are related to dinosaurs (birds even more directly than crocs). And as a creature that roamed the plains of western North America, T. Rex was probably built from slow-twitch, high-endurance muscle. Plus, T. Rex fed on meat. So it’s more like a hawk. Dark meat.

Man, before I die, I’d love to flop some of those T. Rex steaks onto my grill. For dark meat, I’m thinking a lemon-soy marinade. And invite the whole street, because one of those animals could weigh up to six tons.

So inadvertently, I’ve started my bucket list, a phrase that’s entered the lexicon since the Morgan Freeman/Jack Nicholson film The Bucket List. As in, things you do before you kick the bucket. T. Rex has me thinking: What else do I need to do before I die?

  • See a tornado. From, oh, a mile away. As it skips across an empty field. Maybe watch it hit an old, abandoned barn.
  • Drive a 1957 Cadillac Brougham along the Oregon Coast.
  • See that novel I’m writing being sold at San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore.
  • Waterboard Dick Cheney.
  • Sit at a dive bar with Tom Waits and watch a World Series game on the TV.
  • Do some shots of tequila with Anthony Bourdain while we grill a goat in my back yard.
  • Read War and Peace.
  • Cook an artichoke right.
  • Find the guy who bought all of my vinyl record albums at that yard sale and ask if  I can buy them back.
  • Interview Bob Dylan.
  • See Bigfoot.
  • Take a ride in a flying saucer with Jackie Gleason.

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