Behind the scenes at the Speed & Feed BBQ Cook-Off
By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, email@example.com
The Darlington Raceway hosted the third annual Speed & Feed BBQ Cook-Off on Nov. 13 and 14, luring more than thirty expert barbecue teams from South Carolina and beyond to compete for top honors. The News and Press was lucky enough to score a behind the scenes pass to accompany one cook team as they strove for Q-glory.
Quentin and Barbara Tedder of Beaufort cook together under the team name “S’Lowcountry Q” (with a crescent moon subbing for the apostrophe in their logo), and they’ve been on a roll of late. Though they’ve only entered about a half-dozen competitions this year, the Tedders have taken first place at BBQ competitions in Mullins and Gaston.
Their barbecue cooking adventures began about six years ago, after Quentin retired from the military construction industry and Barbara from teaching.
“Quentin heard about this one-day barbecue class and thought it sounded like fun. He told me about it and I decided I’d like to go, too… and we were hooked,” says Barbara, noting that their barbecue obsession rapidly grew from learning to cooking to judging to competing in events all over South Carolina.
The Tedders are not alone in being seduced this way. Lake E. High, Jr., founder and president of the South Carolina Barbecue Association, says there’s plenty of ways Q-cooking draws people in: there’s cool specialty equipment for the gadget lover, kitchen improvisation for the gastronome, the thrill of a contest for those with competitive instincts, and – most importantly of all – a wonderful community.
“People do this because it’s fun, first of all, but it’s also very social; you get to travel around all over the state, meet people and have a good time,” says High.
For the Speed & Feed event, cook teams set up in the garage area, where trailers moored and tents popped up starting early Friday morning. While some cook teams are comfortable sleeping outdoors while on site, the Tedders deployed Quentin’s skills as a master carpenter and custom built a smoker trailer/prep kitchen/camper rig complete with foldaway bunks and an itty bitty shower stall.
Throughout that first day, the host venue distributes all the meat for three competitions: fairly uniform batches of chicken wings, ribs, and Boston butt pork shoulders. Cook teams prep the wings first, submitting a sample box for judging by local celebrities Friday night as the public mill around and nosh all the wings they want for just $5 per person.
Post wing-ding, teams retreat to their cook slips and focus on the main event: the Boston butts. In their galley-style kitchen, the Tedders work BBQ magic elbow to elbow: Quentin trims extraneous fat from eight 8-pound pork butts and uses a stainless steel injector to riddle the intramuscular tissue with a marinade of briny, vinegary goodness, then Barbara thoroughly applies a secret formula spice rub to the surface area. All these techniques combine to imbue the meat with deep, layered flavor that, when done right, makes sauce almost unnecessary.
Once the butts are prepped, they’re ready for the smoker. And what a smoker it is. S’Lowcountry Q uses a custom-built, heavily insulated, black enameled Assassin cooker that weighs about 1,000 lbs, holds six racks, and has a water pan to help moisten the meat. Temperature probes monitor both the smoker chamber temp and the internal temperature of the meat so cooks can adjust heat as necessary. A tall side chute holds a reserve of natural charcoal and the firebox below produces steady smoke from specially chosen wood chunks – pecan, cherry, and peach are popular choices for southern style BBQ. The smoker uses about a pound of charcoal every hour to stay in that low-and-slow magic zone of around 240 degrees Fahrenheit, though Quentin notes this is a matter of preference.
“Most cooks go between 225 degrees to 260, though some will cook a little hotter than that,” he says.
The Tedders buttoned up the smoker around 8 pm on Friday and slept fitfully that evening, waking every so often to check and double check the butts’ progress. Come morning, after several hours nestled in their warm racks, the butts were ready to remove and cool. Careful flavoring prep plus all that low and slow heat had turned those uniform hunks of meat into bonafide matinee idols, complete with a savory outer bark, a rosy smoke ring, and a tender, meaty nucleus.
Choosing which cuts to use for the all-important competition sample box, and how to arrange them, is a meticulous process. Cooks must temper their flavor concerns with aestheticism, since the sample box contents must please the eye as well as the palate.
Quentin neatly butchers away the “money meat” (the juicy, marbled end opposite the bone) and burnt ends (the Harry Potter of barbecue, undervalued and magical) and Barbara hand-pulls the best selection of pork, weeding out any little bones or patches of fat to give each judge a clean example bite.
“If a judge hits a piece of fat or a bone, that’s it,” says Barbara, noting that cookers can basically hang it up if that “no fat, no bones” rule is violated.
Artistry takes over once the cutting is done, and the pair arranges slices of pork with all the care of craftsmen laying down mosaic tiles, matching angles and pairing curves until the puzzle looks complete. Then Quentin takes up the brush and plays painter, adding home-brewed barbecue sauce to enhance the chiaroscuro contrast of dark caramelized bark and light, moist meat. It was enough to render any carnivore impressed… and hungry.
Photos of S’Lowcountry Q’s competition sample box were not permitted (trade secrets, y’all!), though a neighboring team allowed us to shoot one of their submissions and it looked pretty delicious, too.
The sample boxes given to cook teams are new styrofoam clamshells, void of any markings. When submitted for judging, the boxes must be free of garnish, extra sauce cups, or anything that might identify them as the product of a particular cooker. Speed & Feed Marshal David Mobley and Assistant Marshal Dan Shine hammered home those rules at the Friday night cook’s meeting, noting that one recent cook-off team was disqualified because their sauce included peach chunks – an immediate tip-off.
Early bird Quentin runs the sample box from the garage to the track’s media center, where the judging takes place, a few minutes before an air horn signals “turn in time!” around 10 am Saturday. Nerves set in soon after, though the Tedders could hardly stop smiling. They’d done their best, worked hard and had a good time; now it was all up to the judges.
Inside the media center, seven tables with seven judges and some novices (working through a four-event apprenticeship before getting their own snazzy straw chapeau and SCBA Judge hatband) handled sample boxes with great care, taking their time observing and tasting, and speaking very little.
“Some of the top cook teams in South Carolina are here for this event,” Quentin said before the scoring, when he and Barbara admitted they’d be happy to finish in the top ten.
The sample boxes were judged on five criteria: appearance, aroma, taste, tenderness/texture, and overall impression, with scores combined toward a maximum possible total of 17 points. Speed & Feed judges awarded the Tedders a score of 15.9250, good enough to win second place in a very competitive field.
“We’re pretty happy. Given the competition that was here, we’re ecstatic,” Quentin said. “The Speed and Feed is great. The people could not have been more organized, helpful, or hospitable. The track president, Chip Wile, always makes it a point to come by and speak to the teams, which everybody really appreciates.”
First place honors went to the Monkey Bottom BBQ team, with Pimp My Pig placing third, and current S.C. Barbecue Championship leader Gene Culbertson of Backwoods Barbecue notching a fourth place finish.
Quentin and Barbara Tedder say they’ll study their score sheets, note areas that could bear improving, and return to Darlington Raceway next year – like many competitors before them – with their sights set on victory.
Mobile users, click gallery to view photos of the event, including some great cars! Speed & Feed BBQ 2015
The Roots of Southern Barbecue
Southerners generally agree that beef, mutton, or any other kind of meat does not constitute real barbecue; pork is the one and only real deal. This preference is rooted in history, as pre-Civil War southerners consumed about five times more pork than beef. Frugal southern colonists knew that pigs ate less than cattle, and when money was scarce and farmers couldn’t afford to feed livestock, pigs were set loose in the woods to forage for their own meals. This resulted in leaner animals that required low and slow cooking via indirect heat to transform tough muscle into tender dinner.
As to flavor, the argument between sauce factions has raged for decades with little sign of truce. Preference varies by state, by region, even by town. Some swear by sweet tomato-based sauces, others adore a fiery red gravy, and many cling to the Franco-Germanic bequest of mustard-based BBQ. In Darlington County and much of the Pee Dee, the traditional peppery vinegar prep is king, and this may echo back to the days of early Spanish explorers who flavored slow-cooked pork with soured sherry, spawning a culinary delicacy from a libation disaster.
The birth of BBQ required more than one incident of good fortune. The real groundwork was laid when early Spanish explorers linked up with friendly Native Americans around the settlement of Saint Elena (near present day Beaufort) in 1566 and the two cultures shared their knowledge of raising pigs and cooking meat over low, banked fires. This serendipitous exchange resulted in the first recorded instances of pit-cooked pork barbecue… and as many a good southerner would agree, that’s the only kind worth mentioning.
To learn more about the history of BBQ in South Carolina, check out the book “A History of South Carolina Barcecue” by Lake E. High, Jr., founder of the South Carolina Barbecue Association.