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Tuesday, August 24, 2010 

End of Season Wrap-up

This weekend we finished the last of our major events by rocking out 20 different appetizers (over 6 hours) plus three briskets, three butts and a case of ribs for hungry family and friends at the 20th annual St. Divots 7 Fires Golf Tournament. It was a great experience, although I missed the party part of the event by passing out early on Saturday night. Good to know we can still rock the house even when half of the team is recovering from walking pneumonia!

Now is the time when I reflect on this season’s barbecue and look forward to next year’s competitions. All in all, I have to say it was one of our roughest seasons yet. After coming off our success at Harpoon in 2009, I anticipated we’d only move up. I was wrong. We fell victim to the biggest hurdle in competition barbecue – consistency. Our scores were up and down in each competition. In Merrimack, I had temperature probe issues and over-cooked some things. At Harpoon, our ribs and brisket were ok (10th in brisket); but not exceptional. In Maine, our ribs and brisket were mediocre, but we did better in chicken and pork than we’ve done in ages. To say we were up and down was an understatement.

Despite mediocre showings in our barbecue events, the bright light for team Howling Hog this season was found in the team as a whole. We’ve added new team members, long-time supporter Rob Hurley and his wife Tara Race. Rob has been a student of his Weber for years and adds a wonderful level of meticulousness and obsession to the grilling component of what we do. Rob’s first competition netted us our best trophy of the season with a first place in Flank Steak at the Merrimack grilling event. Between Rob’s cooking method and my spice and sauce recipe, we really had a winning combination. In Maine, Rob, Tara, Jenn and I were able to brainstorm collectively on how to cook our Iron Chef entry (the secret ingredient was lobster) in a way that gave us an 8th place rank out of the 30 or so teams who competed.

As a team, we’ve grown more cohesive whether it’s Rob and Tara, or Hank, Mame and Pete who are joining for an event. Set up, strike-down, and vending were smoother this season than they’ve ever been. To me, that’s probably our biggest success as a team. But, the truth is that the best of our season didn’t lie in our competitions, but in the friendships that continue to grow between us and folks from Feeding Friendz and Boneyard Smokers. During each of the three events we competed in this summer we had pot-luck dinners with our buddies. We’ve met family members, we’ve tossed back some brews and we’ve had no small amount of good times with these folks! This is the best part of what we do. And, of course, we’ve celebrated our successes. Feeding Freindz has moved into a new level of cooking this season. Their hard work and dedication brought them the finest of awards with Grand Champion trophies at Harpoon for both Grilling and Barbecue. As I write this, they have reported back from Dover, Delaware coming in 3rd overall among a group of over 80 teams! And our good friends at Boneyard Smokers have kicked up their game as well, pulling calls all summer in Ribs, plus some chicken and brisket in there as well.

I will say that this summer’s barbecue performance wasn’t a total loss for me as Pitmaster. I learned some good stuff both in competition and out of it. The value of good quality meat has grown clearer and clearer. When we switched chicken vendors for Maine and went back to sticking closer to IQue’s chicken method, we placed 13th – the best score in chicken we’ve had in four years. I learned that the pork coming out of Canada is substantially leaner than the pork produced in the US, and it’s important to pay attention to that – leaner means dryer – dryer is bad. I finally think I’ve reached a point with pork butt where I can put up good numbers – 9th place in Maine is the highest score I’ve gotten since Hogstock in 2007 (and I’m pretty well convinced that was a fluke). We’ve confirmed that the way we’re doing our chicken is working. At Harpoon, I confirmed that even with a slightly overcooked brisket, my recipe is still good (10th overall in Brisket). So, the truth is that we’re still on track.

As I look back on the summer and consider the progress of Howling Hog, I can’t lie that I’m disappointed with how we fared in the world of barbecue. Our inconsistency in the four food groups (chicken, pork ribs, pork butt and brisket) falls squarely on my shoulders. As the guy who has taken control of all of that stuff and not relinquished it, it’s up to me to figure out how to right the ship (so to speak). Good thing there’s a long off season in front of me! I’m planning to approach practice in a much more efficient and technical way. I’ve tried to take notes in the past, but have been a tad lazy with them. At this point, I’m not even sure if I could tell you WHERE my old notes are. Last night I put together a three-ring binder specifically for practice and I’m committed to keeping detailed notes. I’m going to try my best to practice something every month through the off-season, which I hope will get me over the consistency hump.

And there’s going to be a concerted effort to invest more in the team this off-season, too. I’m hoping that with a bunch of overtime at work, I can pull together enough money to buy us a 5’X8’ box trailer that can be towed behind my car. If we could lose the need to constantly borrow transportation, it would be a huge improvement for us. Plus, we can sleep in a trailer! There are other things to buy as well, a new camp stove, cambro units, better tables, etc. There’s always something we can buy to make things better.

With the end of each season, I have to remind myself that even though we’ve now been doing this for six years, we’re still just a fledgling team. While other teams do 6-10 competitions a year, we don’t do more than three. To date, we’ve only competed 13 times. Some teams do 13 competitions in a year! I have to remind myself that you don’t succeed overnight, that it (like life) takes hard work and dedication. Cooking for friends and family just for the fun of it continues to keep me grounded. Competition barbecue continues to keep me focused. During this winter I’ll just keep plugging away, trying to do better, and trying to keep it all in perspective. Food is fun. Barbecue is bliss. Smoke is spectacular. Family is life and life is good.

Peace, love and barbecue to all.

Chris Sargent, Pitmaster
Howling Hog Barbecue

You've got your priorities straight, dude. We're happy to come up any-old-time to provide feedback on your practicing! *burp*.

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