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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!”

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.

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