Top 5 Things I Learned At The Kingsford Invitational
Spent a long, very filling weekend in and around St. Louis, at the inaugural Kingsford Invitational Barbecue Competition, a "best of the best" cook-off that featured eight excellent teams that had won prestigious prizes this season. For those of us who love barbecue competitions, it was like the Super Bowl, World Series and Indy 500 all rolled into one, with a little bit of Iron Chef tossed in to keep things interesting.
The action took place in a cow pasture -- no kidding, I've got the cow pies on my boots to prove it -- in Belle, Missouri, a two-hour drive from St. Louis. Teams rolled their rigs in, unloaded their various cooking contraptions and did what they do best: treat meat with TLC, low-and-slow over Kingsford competition briquettes (yes, they make a charcoal for heated cook-offs, but consumers can buy it, too).
Rules were slightly different for this go-round, during which teams cooked beef brisket, chicken, pork and did a one-bite quick-fire challenge. The eloquent Chris Lily was the master of ceremonies -- somebody give that man a show on the Food Network! -- who introduced the all-star lineup of judges and walked us through the painstaking process for coming up with the winner. Instead of the traditional 9-point scale, judges were charged with giving the most perfect bites 13. A hedonic scale, explained Meathead, aka Craig Goldwyn, the author of AmazingRibs.com, and the man who cooked up this novel approach. (With the help of a professor at Cornell University!)
While all this cooking and judging was going on, the group of old school journalists and new world blogger types Kingsford flew out to cover the event took tours of the historic Anheuser-Busch Brewery and of the charcoal plant in rural Belle. It was fascinating!
Here are the Top 5 Things I Learned on this calorie-packed trip:
1. Kingford's charcoal briquettes are made from sawdust, a mountain of it. (Pictured above.) Pretty cool way to recycle a waste product, don't you think? The mostly automated plant at Belle runs 24/7 and the crew takes great pride in their record of clean emissions. It was neat to see the whole process, walking through that vast facility, where the sawdust is cooked down to the rock-hard briquettes before being bagged and stacked on pallats that soar two stories high in a 20,000 square foot warehouse. I've always been a Kingsford fan -- I have tried most of the other brands and experimented with lump, too -- but this made me even more enthusiastic.
2. A sprinkle of orange Tang gives grilled chicken a perfect golden hue. So says Los Angeles based cooking champ Harry Soo, aka Slap Yo' Daddy BBQ. Can't wait to use try it.
3. Grilled pickles! Chris Lily's ridiculously delicious grilled bread and butter pickles made me jump for joy! Wow, how freaking novel is that? That pitmaster also impressed the thirsty folks at the bar with his Smoked Lemonade, spiked with Makers Mark. Fill 'er up, please.
4. White Lily flour is no longer made in the South, but milled in Ohio. I went searching high and low for the best material for making biscuits so I could tuck it into my suitcase, but came up empty.
5. Barbecue brings people together. Actually, I already knew this, but it was reaffirmed during this two-day contest. There's nothing more special than talking to team members who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of the perfect bite of Q. Most of these folks have day jobs, but spend every spare moment working on their craft. I met guys from Detroit and a seasoned pitmaster from Virginia, who are white-hot passionate about what they're doing. It takes an amazing commitment of time and money to compete, and while teams might stress as they're putting together the "blind box" that's going to be set in front of distinguished panel of judges, you can tell that part of the reward is hanging out and talking barbecue, right down to the most minute detail. It's easy to see how you could get hooked. I'm happy as a pig in you-know-what to be an observer and a chronicler of this "sport." Go teams!