The first question one needs to ask oneself when one has volunteered to serve as a judge in a barbecue contest is: what am I going to eat for breakfast? I went with watermelon, hoping that the fiber would ameliorate the deleterious effects of gorging myself on meat for three hours. More on the success of my plan in due time. But you need to know right away that if you missed the first annual Blues, Bandits & BBQ festival thrown by the community-minded folks from Go Oak Cliff, you missed a hell of an event. You also missed a chance to sweat off about 5 pounds of water weight. It was hot and humid yesterday.
Rob Shearer, who organized the event, estimates that about 2,500 people turned out. Of those, 750 bought special wristbands that entitled them to serve as peoples’ choice judges. But, despite the whole populist vibe that they foster in the OC, who cares what the hoi polloi think, right? You want to know what we trained judges thought.
The judges were divided into two panels. At my table sat the unfortunately bearded and pushing-40 Jeff Whittington (KERA), the Saint Tropez-born Melissa Boon (Edible Dallas & Fort Worth), the delightfully randy Andrea Grimes (Dallas Observer), the very knowledgeable Daniel Vaughn (Full Custom Gospel BBQ), and yours truly, with a solid base coat of watermelon lining his gut. We started at noon with sausage and progressed through three more flights of barbecue, tackling chicken and pork ribs before wrapping it up with brisket. I felt full after the first course of sausage. By my count, we ate 36 samples of meat.
I think Andrea Grimes came up with the most apt description of the day, applied to one particularly offensive serving of pork ribs. Or was it brisket? I forget. At that point in the proceedings, perhaps two hours in, I was beginning to sweat, not so much from the heat but from my manful effort to choke down yet another bite of overcooked barbecue. This one serving of pork ribs, I’m telling you, they smelled like cat piss. I said to our table, “This serving of pork ribs, it smells like cat piss.”
“No,” Andrea corrected me. “It’s not just cat piss. It’s the entire litter box. And not the good litter, either. The really cheap stuff.”
She was right. What had gone wrong with those pork ribs? I suspect it was an acute case of what went wrong with much of the barbecue we sampled. The event was billed as the first “sustainable” barbecue competition in the country (despite the woman pictured above, whose t-shirt made me laugh). So all the meat was provided by Urban Acres, the all-local organic market on West Davis Street. I like the concept. But like a lot of ideas that sound attractive at first (pulling that fire alarm in the Richardson hotel, going as a baby that one Halloween and wearing only an adult diaper), “sustainable” and “cooking the flesh of animals with hot smoke” turns out to be something best avoided. I’m sure the meat carried by Urban Acres — Nitschke Beef, a cattle operation owned by some Cliff dwellers), Burgundy Beef, Juha Farms pork, and Windy Meadows chickens — can be prepared in delicious ways, but, save for the possible exception of the chicken, it ain’t made for barbecuing.
Daniel Vaughn was the first to make this observation at our judges’ table. Hormone-free animals likely smoke up just fine, but when they eat only grass, their muscles aren’t marbled with the kind of fat that corn-fed critters have, the kind of fat that you need to keep meat moist when you smoke it for four hours or longer. Daniel talked to one contestant who told him that his normal pork ribs preparation calls for four hours of smoking; after only two hours in the smoker, his ribs were already too dry.
Point being, we ate a lot of tough, dry barbecue. But not all of it suffered so. While none of the brisket our table tasted was worth a damn, I can recall at least one good sample of pork ribs, a couple decent chickens, and a smattering of sausage (which is, oddly enough, the title of my band’s third album). Here are the winners:
Sausage: Lagarto Catering (a Highland Park-based catering company, which just has to rub raw some of those fedora-wearing hipsters in Oak Cliff); chicken: Texas BBQ Posse (a handful of Dallas Morning News guys); ribs: Pecan Lodge (a BBQ restaurant in Shed 2 at Dallas Farmers Market); brisket: Heavy Metal Cookin’ Team (a bunch of Oak Cliff natives). Lagarto Catering, headed up by Rick Fairchild, also won the Grand Champ prize for most total points across all categories, and they won the People’s Choice award. So big props to Fairchild.
In all, as I say, it was great event, especially considering this was its first year. The Better Block Project once again gave us a glimpse of what might be possible if people were given a little slack by City Hall. The live blues and barbecue smoke wafting through the neighborhood were both a delight. The legendary Bobby Patterson was showing up to play just as I left. Oh, and I ought to note that not all the smoke found its way to too-lean meat. Many of the two dozen contestants brought their own meat to cook, and I understand that those with the coveted wristbands were treated to much better barbecue than we judges were duty-bound to endure.
They’ve really got something going in Oak Cliff. The word “community” gets bandied about quite a bit, but these folks really have fostered a true community. Whether it’s the Bike Friendly Oak Cliff gang making you long for a fat-tire cruiser or Jason Roberts transforming a block just to show people it can be done or Eno’s throwing a Beer Riot or the Go Oak Cliff guys coming up with another food group to gorge on (they did mussels a few weeks back), you get the sense that some brainpower is at work out there. Those Gen X hippies aren’t just sitting around on their hands, bitching about where Dallas falls short. They’re making it happen.
Ah yes. One last loose end to tie up. Or, rather, the opposite of a loose end. The prophylactic helping of watermelon appears to have had no effect. I can feel about 10 pounds of meat camped out in my bowel, and a successful trip to the men’s room still feels like a long way off. My apologies if I’ve shared too much.