Friday, August 15, 2008 


My apologies for the tardiness of this report from Harpoon, clearly, I’m running a little late. My reason for the delay is two-fold: First, I’ve been enjoying my annual summer vacation, part of which has involved avoiding anything that seems remotely like office work. Any time spent on a computer (aside from checking email) has been dedicated to playing games like Civilization 4: Beyond the Sword and Titan Quest: Immortal Throne. Second, and more significant, is that I’ve needed time to reflect on Harpoon and the 2008 season as a whole. From the standpoint of pitmaster and team captain, it was not a very good season. Because of this, I’m going to break my report from Harpoon into two parts – a report about the competition itself and a report about the event, the near kidnapping of an advertising representative and why we do what we do. Later, I’ll follow up with my own thoughts about next season and my mission for the off-season.

Harpoon (Part 1) – The Barbecue Competition

As my fair readers know, this season has not been our best. Our scores have found themselves locked firmly in the bottom third, a departure from 2007. We had high hopes going into Harpoon. We’ve had success here and as our “home town” competition, we always feel pumped up. This year was no exception. We arrived early on Friday to find that most of the vendors were already present, but our preferred location near the entrance was still available. Over a period of about six hours, members of Howling Hog Barbecue rolled in from Duxbury and Waterbury. In the evening, Harpoon treated teams to a dinner provided by Chris Hart and his team I-Que. As always the food was excellent (although I could have gone through the line twice). Kudos to Chris and company for the spread they put out for us each year.

Unlike Lake Placid and Merrimack, at Harpoon the barbecue competition takes place on Saturday instead of Sunday. This means that Friday night is when the hard work and the sleepless night happens. Although our kitchen didn’t come together quite as quickly as I had expected it would, we had our operation up and running well in advance of the start time for our bigger cuts of meat. The overnight went smoothly, and the ribs and chicken went on in sequence in the early hours of the next day. I have to admit that I came into turn-in time feeling very positive about our prospects, which generally means we won’t do well at all.

Since lake placid, we’ve been trying a new approach to chicken. Now that the Old Bull is a pellet head (, I’ve put him in charge of cooking our only winged entry in the barbecue competition. The treager pit is capable of smoking at a higher temp, and we see this as a way to achieve the illusive crispy skin that so many of us shoot for. One of the harder parts of doing a whole chicken is deciding how to present it. In this case, we opted to bring a mix of white and dark meat into the mix, including some drumsticks. Our score for this product was in the lower middle of the pack, but considering that this was only our second shot at a whole bird, I think we did pretty well.

This time we entered a whole chicken.

Our next category on Saturday was ribs. As many of you know, ribs have been our Achilles heel. I spent several hundred dollars and many Saturdays practicing the art of cooking ribs during our off-season. Interestingly, I don’t think I really grasped how to cook them until the week before Harpoon. I’d been constantly undercooking the tasty bones, which accounts for our paltry scores in years past. Amazingly, in 2008 at Harpoon, ribs were our best category. Given our tendency to come in DAL (dead assed last) in ribs for the past several years, coming in 15th out of 42 teams in 2008 is a resounding success. I can only point to the constant practice and advice I gleaned from the archives of the Barbecue Forum as reasons for improvement.

Our rib entry.

The third category in any KCBS sanctioned barbecue event is Pork Shoulder or butt. Because my scores earlier in the season had been so mediocre, I went back to some of my older methods of cooking. I really felt that this was a good decision (and I still do), although I made a serious error in choice of sauce (more about the sauce debacle later). As a result, our score in pork shoulder was only in the bottom third of the game – a major disappointment to me.

Our pork shoulder entry.

Finally, we submitted our brisket entry. Brisket is a meat that I felt as though I understood after scoring 5th at Harpoon last season. I thought the meat was tasty and not too dry. The judges, however, seemed to think otherwise. The resulting score put us second to last in the brisket category. From 5th to 41! Amazing. Aside from the fact that I banked on a popular sauce, I’m really not sure what the hell happened on this one. Back to the brisket drawing board for me.

Brisket. I really thought this was better than we scored!

One of the things I learned post-awards, was that judges hadn’t been too impressed with what was served. One of the biggest irritations to them was that nearly half of the teams present, ourselves included, were using the same kind of sauce. Blues Hog, which is an outstanding barbecue sauce, is popular with some of the better teams on the New England circuit. Much like in the NFL, when one team uses something and wins, other teams try to follow their lead. In hindsight, if I had opted to use my own sauce, I think it would have set me apart from the masses and might have moved us up a few ticks.

I will say that we were not the only small team to feel the sting of disappointment. A number of Vermont teams found themselves in the lower half of the scoring this year. I have no idea why, but many of us were scratching our heads.

Harpoon (Part 1) – The Grilling Competition

Just after the barbecue awards ceremony, the cooks meeting for the “Summer Sizzler” grilling competition was held. The time for this meeting had been moved up from previous years and I’m hoping they think twice about doing that again next season. The meeting was a mess. With the refrigerator truck for the Harpoon kegs to our right, and a band banging away to our left, it was VERY hard to hear. Teams were not on their best behavior either. One of the purposes of the cooks meeting (aside from getting your turn-in boxes) is to have any questions answered by the KCBS reps running the competition. Team members were talking over eachother and interrupting and generally being disrespectful to all of us. It was a bummer, and in our case, it lead (to some extent) to our biggest failure of the year. I had been charged with asking if the chef’s choice category needed to be cut into six portions (in standard situations, we would need to, but in an open category such as chef’s choice we might not). There was much back and forth about this. A number of reps said that they would “prefer us” to cut our entries into six portions. The reason that they prefer to have the entries cut up is that there is limited cutlery in the judging tent. It’s a pain in the rear to try to cut up a steak, for example, with a plastic knife. In the end, Ken (our KCBS rep), laid down the law and decreed that we would have to cut our entries. Unfortunately, this wasn’t what I heard (nor was it what a number of other teams heard). More about this later.

For 2008, the contest organizers shook up the grilling categories. Instead of sausage, wings and steak, we were cooking fish, lamb and beef (any cut). One of the mistakes I made this season as team captain, was not looking at the rules well in advance of the competition. Were it not for Farmer Girl pointing out to me that the grilling categories had changed, I might very well have brought a bunch of the wrong stuff! However, we were able to pull our entries together the week before the event.

Our fish entry was first. It was also the first time that Mame stepped into the pit and cooked up an entry of her own. She opted for a tuna steak, marinated and encrusted in sesame seeds. The cooking took us a bit to get used to, but in the end we turned in a pretty good fish entry. The score wasn’t exceptional, but for a first time entry, we were pretty pleased.

Grilled tuna.

The second entry was mine, a lamb dish with Indian overtones. Lamb is a tough type of meat for me to cook. This is primarily because I very rarely cook it. Lamb ain’t cheap, so it’s not reasonable for me to cook legs and legs of lamb. I practiced my boneless leg of lamb dish once before we competed and the scores were middling. Yet, if they run this category again, I think I can make some tweaks to it that will give it a chance at placement.

The lamb. In the future, I'll cook it in a different form!

The third entry was beef. In our case, the Old Bull did a wonderful beef roast on the grill. It came out very well and with a spicy horseradish sauce we felt good about the entry. But, beef is a tough category to compete in. Unlike lamb, beef is easy to find and practice is easy to do. Plus, with teams like the Anchormen and I Smell Smoke, who have members that cook for a living, the competition is brutal. Our scores reflected that.

Beef roast with a spicy horseradish sauce.

Going into the grilling competition, we knew our best shot at a prize would be the chef’s choice category. Our ladies first prize last season was brilliant and their attempt at a prize this season was even better. Were it not for my own mistake, I feel we would have walked away with SOME sort of prize. But...I messed up. When I walked out of the cooks meeting the night before, my brain processed the “we would prefer you cut the entry into pieces” as the rule. It was not. When KCBS rep Ken came to our booth with our presentation box, I knew I had messed up. Our best entry was our first ever DQ (Disqualifiaction). Telling Farmer Girl the news was heartbreaking. I’m still not sure I’ll be able to make that up to her.

A glimpse of what could have been another winner.

With a DQ factored in to our score, we did poorly over all in the Summer Sizzler, and the barbecue season for us ended with a whimper. There is much to think about and much to consider.

In the end the high point of the Summer Sizzler grilling competition wasn't our success, it was getting to see our friends Pauline and Dave of Vermont Barbecue take home their first Harpoon trophy! Dave, who's been cooking professionally for years, scored big in the lamb category - First Place! We're really excited to see another team from Vermont, particularly a team who lives a town away from our home base, take home a prize! Yay Pauline and Dave!

Smokin' Fools (a Vermont Barbecue Company)
with their 1st place lamb trophy!

Harpoon (Part 2) – Why we do this

I don’t want my melancholy report of how this all turned out to make it seem as though we had a lousy time at Harpoon or any event this summer. In fact, that would be far from the reality of it. Surely, I’m disappointed with how we did. I’m particularly disappointed with the mistakes I made as captain throughout the summer. But, the competition itself is only a part of why we do this. The main reason is because we like to do this. We love to cook and we love to be with other folks who feel the same way. And to that end, we feel like we really won this event. This season I feel as though we’ve finally become “regulars” to some extent. Teams know us by name now. At Harpoon I had a bunch of teams drop by and tell me that they read my blog.

Being considered part of this community of partying foodees fills me with a great deal of pleasure. In particular are the relationships that we’ve begun to cultivate. This season we found ourselves parked next to Tim, Wendy, Betsy and Andy of Feeding Friendz. These guys were my neighbors the first time I ever competed. Without their friendly nature and well wishes that first year, I might not have come back. But, I did and I’ve considered the folks of Feeding Friendz to be good friends ever since. To illustrate the kind and friendly nature of these guys, consider this trucker from the west coast. While we were setting up on Friday, this pretty big rig (sans trailer) stopped by the gate. The trucker had a weekend long layover and had never been to a barbecue competition before. Fortunately for him, he struck up a conversation with Tim and Wendy and within minutes, they had gotten permission for him to park his cab on site and he was a member of the Feeding Friendz team for the weekend. This, my friends, is why we do this – the people are just great.

Feeding Friendz checks out the big rig!

In addition to making exceptional neighbors, Feeding Friendz also deep fry a mean Oreo. In fact, their deep-fried Oreo operation resulted in one of the highlights of the event. During the off-season, Wendy had procured an inflatable Oreo man to act as their “advertising representative”. This plastic man stood proudly at the edge of their booth, enticing attendees to try some of the deep-fried desserts. Feeding Freindz’s offering was VERY popular and required a larger crew to keep the operation running while the main team members were working the competition. It’s fortunate for them that they had the extra bodies, otherwise, they might have been victims of a dastardly crime!

During the awards ceremony on Saturday, Tim, Wendy, Betsy and Andy left the booth in charge of their back up crew (friends and relatives). While they were away, a gentlemen apparently took interest in Mr. Oreo. He snatched the inflatable fellow and began to dance around the midway with him. The Feeding Friendz crew watched in mild amusement until the true intent of the dancer became clear. Breaking away from his dance, Mr. Oreo’s dance partner ran for the exit and, upon the appearance of his limo, began stuffing Mr. Oreo in the vehicle against his inflatable will. Luckily, members of Feeding Friendz were on the ball – tackling the assailant before he could make off with the ambassador of cookies and saving Mr. Oreo from a fate worse than being deep fried. You’ll be happy to know that he survived unscathed, although he was locked up at night for fear of a return attempt on his life.

Mr. Oreo celebrates his return to safety with members of Feeding Freindz.

Another high point of our social interaction this summer is a growing friendship between team Howling Hog and Dave and Sandy from Boneyard Smokers. Dave and Sandy are good people and we’ve had the pleasure of their visits whenever we’re at the same competition. Harpoon is so popular that there’s a waiting list for teams to get into the event. Boneyard is still on the outside looking in, so Dave and Sandy join Purple Turtle (their original mentors) as team members in order to be at the big event. So, we were able to have the pleasure of Dave and Sandy’s company at Harpoon on multiple occasions, which was a joy. These are good folks, and we’re delighted to call them friends.

One of the best things about this season was the addition of Farmer Girl’s Uncle, Henchman 24, to the team. He’s has been trying to make it down to Harpoon for the past three years and was finally able to break away from home commitments long enough to give us a hand and drink a lot of our beer. Although I had to fend off endless harassment and constant pathetic begging for drink “cue-pons” (as he calls coupons), having his presence at Harpoon was wonderful. Hopefully we’ll be able to count on it again in the future.

As mediocre as this season was when you look at the numbers, it was a very positive season. We learned a lot, both good and bad. We continued to become more a part of this collective of mad cookers and further refined our vending operation. I cannot look at this as a failure. Instead, I look at this summer as a challenge to improve and learn. I look forward to writing more about this as the summer winds down.

We also want to thank the fine folks at Harpoon who put on one of the best and most enjoyable contests in New England. Without their hard working staff and the respect they show for the teams, the Harpoon Championships of New England Barbecue wouldn't be the spectacular event that it is.

Finally, I want to thank the many folks who helped us make this possible. Without the involvement of Doctor’s without Boundaries and our many friends and family, we could not have made it through the summer without going bankrupt. Thank you all!