"Come 'n' get a deep-fried biscuit," a man's voice boomed over the crowd. He sounded fatherly, perhaps a bit rotund. But the pastry pusher turned out to be a muscular tough guy wearing Harley Davidson leather and a do-rag. "Get one with honey butter," he suggested.
The hot, sweet liquid seeped out of the biscuit, turning fingers into a sticky mess. Underneath the honey flavor was a distinct note of Pillsbury-ness. "Are the biscuits homemade?" a passerby asked the woman who took her dollar. "Are you kidding?" the seller replied. "We don't want to kill ourselves here."
But that's more or less What they did at last weekend's 7th Annual Barbecue Championship at the Harpoon Brewery in Windsor. Behind every one of the 42 competing teams was a pitmaster who spent the weekend sweating over blistering hot grills and smokers, purportedly loving every minute of it. They'd poured money into hundreds of pounds of meat, driven from points all over New England, and slept fitfully in tents as their briskets smoked nearby.
The Green Mountain event is sanctioned by the 6000-member Kansas City Barbecue Society, which claims on its website to be the world's largest "organization of barbecue and grilling enthusiasts." How do you join? A $35 check and a vow to "faithfully uphold the tenets for a barbecue fanatic. I will cook and/or eat as much barbecue as the law allows, while having as much fun as possible."
Windsor is one stop on a long competition barbecue circuit, and the KCBS seal of approval means that every on-site judge is a card-carrying member of the organization. Plus, each adjudicator has passed a course resulting in official "top taster" certification. What does that mean? The KCBS website doesn't spill the beans.
A full quarter of the groups that came bearing 'cue were Vermonters, hailing from towns such as Vershire, Lake Elmore and Braintree. But geography turned out to be immaterial: Whether or not the winning team was composed of Vermont residents - they could be from New Hampshire, of all places - its members would be declared the Vermont state barbecuing champs. Throughout the weekend, participants were judged in eight categories, including pork ribs, chicken wings and sausage.
"Where else can you sit in the middle of a field, rub your meat and get judged on it?" mused Bob Depot of Narragansett, Rhode Island's Anchormen.
Like most folks there, Depot said he viewed cooking 'cue as a hobby, not a vocation. "Some people like to golf; we like to barbecue," he explained. "It's just different boys with different toys." And serious as they were about their sausages, the cookers also seemed to share an irreverent sense of humor. One booth, manned by a team called Burnt Offerings, claimed it had the "best butt in New England." Another crew called themselves the Porkaholics.
The competition resembled a smoked-meat-scented, food-centric version of a state fair. The crowd ran the gamut from chubby babies in strollers to deeply tanned, whip-thin women with belly piercings and tattoos. In one corner of the venue was a strongman contest, where guys strained to purple while lifting monster tires attached to a metal bar. At the other end, folks lined up to taste Harpoon's draft beers and listen to first-rate rock covers by a group called Wherehouse.
Wandering up and down the midway to the strains of Ben Harper's "Steal My Kisses," it was tough not to get overwhelmed by the barbecue boosters who noisily encouraged passersby to sample the "hawg wings," pieces of pork shank cooked like buffalo wings, and caramelized grilled corn. While not all the teams were allowed to vend, a bunch did.
And that turned out to be important. Some people in the crowd were aficionados, but the regular folks were only mildly interested in who won the competition - they'd never heard of Yabba Dabba Que or the Bastey Boys. What they really wanted was to get their fill of the saucy stuff, and maybe buy a few bottles o' dry rub to take home.
It was hard to decide what to try, and the prices didn't give you any clues to quality. Across the board, single ribs ran around $3, while overflowing piles of shredded meat atop hamburger buns were typically $5. At Howling Hog Barbecue of East Randolph, a hefty plate of brisket, baked beans and salad with homemade focaccia cost $10. The team's fifth-place ribbon in the brisket category was the best kind of advertisement.
For a competitive BBQ team, the Howling Hogs were a little unorthodox. The team was headed by Jenn Colby, an employee of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Vermont, and her husband Chris Sargent, a planner at the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission in Woodstock - the type of folks you might expect to be focusing their efforts on, say, heirloom tomatoes instead of good-ol'-boy fare.
But Colby and Sargent aim to produce better barbecue with an eye toward the environment. In addition to their day jobs, they own a small-scale farm called Howling Wolf. "It's a dream of ours to win with brisket that we raised. It closes the loop," Colby explained. Sargent chimed in, "We're total carnivores, but we want animals to be darn happy before they're eaten." For now, since they don't raise enough animals to use for competition, they get their flesh locally through The Royal Butcher in Braintree.
Aunt Mame and Uncle Hank McKee rounded out the Howling Hogs. Hank took care of the ribs, while Mame, a potter by trade, helped make the mouthwatering brownies and cookies prominently displayed at the booth. She dished up generous portions of food to hungry takers, and talked up the HH's most unusual specialty: smoked hard-boiled eggs.
The eggs were tan and had a delicate, smoky flavor. Although Hank encouraged the use of hot sauce - and was offering at least eight different brands - the heat drowned out the unique flavor. The eggs were better straight up. The chunks of award-winning beef were tender, saucy and satisfying, and the focaccia was a nice change of pace from the standard-issue burger buns other folks were using.
Neither the stakes, nor the conditions, had dampened Mame's spirits. "People have to get along well together when they've slept on the ground for a day or two," she said. "It's a lot of work." That attitude appears to be a prevailing one. "It's a competition, but people share back and forth," explained Mame. If you want to know the secret to your neighbor's sauce, all you need to do is ask. "They'll tell you everything in their recipe and how they do it."
The crowds are eating it up, anyway. According to Liz Melby, Harpoon's director of communications, about 1500 more people attended the festival this year than in 2006. To what does she attribute the event's success? "People are learning to appreciate the quality and fine cuisine of barbecue as well as that of beer," Melby said. While both the brew and the 'cue maintain a kind of "everyman" appeal, Melby hopes "this event will elevate the status of both in people's minds."
As the day wound down, and the judges emptied container after Styrofoam container, tired teams began closing up shop. Sticky patrons, stuffed to the gills, ambled toward their cars.
The weekend's big winner: team Lunchmeat from Rockland, Massachusetts. Let's hope next year the Howling Hogs, or another Vermont team, takes home the grand prize. The world may know us for maple syrup and granola, but 'round here the ribs are mighty fine.