The Winner's Circle: Competition Barbecue
Enlarge Image Credit: Todd Coleman
Welcome to the world of competition barbecue, a sport, an obsession, and a whole way of life for a growing number of cooks
It's 11 a.m. and eerily quiet. Here, in the grassy holler behind Main Street in Lynchburg, Tennessee, 76 cooking teams from 16 countries have set up camp to compete in the Super Bowl of smoked meat: the 22nd Annual Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue, known to those on the competition barbecue circuit simply as "the Jack." Their RVs and tents are lined up in neat rows, forming a city the size of a few football fields that sits under a fragrant cloud of wood smoke. Last night, people walked around ogling each other's cookers and greeting old friends with backslaps and beers. There was a party at the Canadian team's tent, draped in maple leaf banners; a cook from an Austrian team wearing a cowboy hat passed around a bottle of schnapps. But this morning, everyone has their eyes on the prize: $5,000 in cash. And the judging is about to begin.
At the camp of Cool Smoke, a team from Richmond, Virginia, no one says a word. No one except chief cook George "Tuffy" Stone, a wiry 47-year-old who is standing in the kitchen of his Forest River motor home, singing the Oscar Mayer bologna jingle at the top of his lungs. He focuses his nervous energy on a tray of smoked chicken thighs, carefully dipping each one into a bowl of homemade sauce sweetened with Virginia honey, then darts outside to his smoker to finish cooking the meat.
"If you don't have bite-through skin, you don't have a chance of getting into the Top 10," Stone says. It's for that reason he spent one and a half hours last night removing the thigh skin and meticulously scraping away flabby fat from its underside before stretching the skin back over the meat. Now he opens the grill to reveal the most beautiful thighs you've ever seen: perfectly rectangular and burnished to a glossy mahogany. You bite in and the skin shatters, giving way to succulent, smoke-tinged meat.