Hudson Denny has just handed me perhaps the most memorable bite of BBQ I've ever had. It's beef brisket; tender as a poem by Byron, more complex than a fine Bordeaux, redolent with spice, smoke, acid, sweetness and cherry wood overtones. Hudson can tell I'm impressed by my wicked smile. I've been coming to the Blue Ridge Barbecue Festival , home of the North Carolina BBQ Championships, for 10 years, and in that time, this may be the second best bite of brisket I've ever had. If he was serving this at a fine dining restaurant, diners would be barging into his kitchen to offer up kisses and accolades.
Unfortunately, at this particular venue, he won't finish in the top 10. And I knew this as soon as I tasted his brisket. The judges might be impressed but they won't consider it as sufficiently representative of North Carolina barbecue. At last year's event, I was fortunate enough to taste first place ribs and brisket, and I was completely underwhelmed. Last year's winning barbecue was very good, very tender, properly seasoned and well-balanced. And it was also safe; so if you asked me to describe it, I'd be stumped to offer any details. Hudson's brisket will stay with me for a very long time.
Tiger O'Rourke of Henry's Smokehouse has taken a different road. As far as a BBQ success story goes, Tiger is it. He's been a part of Greenville's iconic Henry's for almost as long as they've been open. He started as a dishwasher in 1991 and now is a partner. Henry's is the sort of BBQ joint that displaced Southerners pine over. They've got a real wood burning pit, mounds of succulent pulled pork, lots of pretty smiles behind the counter, Cole slaw made with Duke's mayonnaise, and sweet tea that flows like a tapped fire hydrant in summer. Henry's also has a food truck, a catering service and customers lined up out the door. I've talked to a lot of BBQ competitors over the years and most of them have the same dream. They want a bricks and mortar BBQ joint, much like Henry's.
Tiger's brisket is wonderful. He hasn't swung for the fence like Hudson has. He's taken the safe route and given the judges what they're looking for and he's done an admirable job. But there's 75 other teams here, some of them sport multiple Grand Champion trophies.
Tiger knows what he's up against and he's not happy with his brisket. He pronounces it too dry, perhaps a bit tough. Understand that this is beef brisket an average backyard BBQ'er would practically swoon over. But against some pretty serious competition, he knows it isn't going to win him any trophies. His brisket has been on the smoker since the early morning hours and there's little he can do at this point, so he offers me a beer.
Hudson Denney, on the other hand, has kept his day job. He's a partner in an IT firm and he's in this event for the fun and glory and of course, a trophy. Hudson's team, Too Bad You're My Cousin, is available for rent so he has the added incentive of selling his services through his competitive efforts. He eyes the box of brisket he's about to send to the judges table and laughs.
"$500 reduced to this. See we cook a bunch of everything so that at judging time, we have multiple pieces of meat to taste and choose from. Care for a rib? Or ten?"
He's just placed maybe a quarter pound of brisket in his box, yet he's cooked many times that to get the proper amount. Each competitor has to prepare chicken, pork ribs, pulled pork and beef brisket, place a small amount in a standard Styrofoam go-box and it gets hustled to a table of six judges who may disqualify an entire box for pooled sauce. After Hudson hands me a bit of his brisket, one of his teammates shakes his head and labels the beef "incestuously good." I'm not prepared to pass judgment on that statement. But I do know the brisket it's not going to fly with the judges.
Competition BBQ has grown exponentially in the last ten years and that means bigger purses, more attention, and more competitors. At this particular event, Food Network and Travel Channel both made an appearance. There's writers, BBQ aficionados and various hangers-on, all wandering through the competition area, all hoping to taste award-winning pork. But this sort of event isn't for the faint of heart, or wallet. Most of these teams practice for weeks, they take notes, carefully select their wood, carefully measure brines or spice rubs, alter their cooking style to suit their judges, then practice, practice, and practice some more. And all this practice is time consuming. And expensive. And at the end of the day, you may be beaten by the narrowest of margins or by a boatload of points.
"But you know what, John, this is so much damn fun. I really get a kick out of coming out here, practicing my skills and competing against the best BBQ teams in the world. It's exhausting, but win, place or show, I'm all about the experience."
And at the end of the day, neither Tiger nor Hudson finished in the money, yet they are both successful, world class competitors.