Story and photos by Mary Sheely
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
Gray, chilly, rainy – perfect weather for a barbecue, isn’t it? Well, it is if you’re a member of the Pacific Northwest Barbecue Association, which is holding the Evergreen State Barbecue Championship at Alki Beach this weekend. Thirty teams were setting up tents and smokers in the morning drizzle and cold, and all of them will remain, camping and cooking overnight, until the final awards for pork butt, brisket, pork ribs and chicken are given out at 4 p.m. Sunday.
The competition is serious but friendly – Steve Sanders and Sherwin Chin were working together, setting up Steve’s tents in the rain, yet the two are actually on competing teams. Sanders, with Smoke a Fat One Barbecue, has a catering service in Snohomish, but calls his barbecue competing “just a hobby that went bad.” Or good – Sanders actually qualified for October’s Jack Daniels Invitational in Lynchburg, Tennessee, the holy grail of barbecue competitions. Chin is from Bellevue and competing with Rainbow Catering. Both men say their ribs are their best entry.
Each team must cook four meats in the competition – pork butt, brisket, chicken, and pork ribs – and there are optional entries for pizza and dessert on Saturday.
“Teams will be here all night cooking,” says event coordinator Christene James, a West Seattle native who is a barbecue master judge and also a cook. “Brisket and pork butt can take anywhere from 12 to 18 hours to cook. Ribs take anywhere from six to eight hours depending on what temperature you’re cooking it at.
“This is smoking, not grilling,” she says. “They cook at about 225 to 250 degrees for…a long time! It’s tough work.”
The Pacific Northwest BBQ Association was founded in 1990, says James, and now boasts nearly 500 members. The organization holds barbecue competitions throughout Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and most of Canada. The Alki cook-off, the last for the season, is a qualifying event for national competitions.
James explains: “A qualifying event has to have those four meats I talked about and has to have at least 25 teams to qualify for the Grand Champion to attend a national event. The winner of this event automatically qualifies for the American Royal, which is in Kansas City, the Great American, also in Kansas City, and goes into the draw for the Jack Daniels Invitational. The Jack Daniels Invitational only takes so many teams, and there are usually several teams in one state that win a Grand Championship, so all of those teams who win go into a hat for their state and then they pull one for the state.”
James walks over to check on the fire extinguisher of Steve and Connie Rogers, who drove down from Olympia. The Rogerses are competing for the first time in Washington, but have been part of several cook-offs in Memphis, Connie’s hometown.
“I placed 11th at Memphis in May,” Steve says proudly. The main cook for their team, Pork-Que NW, Steve is another cook who considers ribs his specialty. “I’m the main cook in our house, too,” he says. “Connie gets to set up the pretty blind box.”
The “blind box” is how each entry is presented to judges, and according to Steve Rogers, it’s the single most important element in judging.
“It’s like a to-go box, but you have to put down what’s called a putting green,” he says. “You cut up your parsley and such and put it in there very, very tight so it looks just like a golf course putting green. When the judges open it up, they have no clue who it came from – there’s a code on it so the head judge will know – and they grade on appearance, taste, and texture.”
“I practiced last night for about two hours,” says Connie, “taking little pieces of parsley, getting them just so, layering, layering, layering. It can’t look messy, the meat can’t fall down into it. So you can imagine the layer layer, pack, layer, layer, so when the meat’s on the top, all around the edges looks really even and pretty.”
The couple’s tent shields a staggering amount of supplies – they’ve opted to compete in the pizza and dessert contests, too. For dessert, they’re making Steve’s recipe for drunken apples – apples soaked in spiced rum and amaretto with an apple crisp type of crust.
The food all sounds – and no doubt smells – delicious, but health regulations mean that passers-by won’t be able to sample the wares. But never fear – two booths are set up near the picnic shelter to slake barbecue cravings. Slabtown BBQ will be selling food to hungry folks, and event sponsor Rancher’s Reserve will be giving away free samples of brisket.
In other good news, the rain is supposed to clear up, too.