Monday, July 14, 2008

Butt to Butt X Invitational

First in a two part series:
So, I'm home and rested after an extended weekend cooking solo in Shannon, Illinois. This past weekend was the Butt to Butt X Invitational followed by the Illinois State Championship. Both events have a storied history. The contest is 19 years old and the Invitational just celebrated it's tenth year. To commemorate the decade of Butt to Butt events, a Tournament of Champions was contested, pitting the winners from previous years against each other. One cool twist was that the winner of this year's invitational also competed in the T of C. When I learned about this event in 2002, I decided to make it a goal to win my way into this event. Little did I know how hard it would be. It took us over four years and 150 events to finally do it. The worst part was during that time I got to know Mike & Theresa Lake and discovered what a great contest they have in Shannon. Despite some coaxing, I never wavered from the idea that I would go to Shannon when I was in their invitational.

This event concludes on Friday prior to the KCBS sanctioned event, sort of. We submitted our best pork at 3:00 pm on Friday. So as not to give away the winner of that event, all of us submitted another box along side the champions at 5:00 pm. Of us from the first round that submitted, only the winner's box from the Butt to Butt would actually make it to be judged in the second round. Short of having a down and dirty awards ceremony at 4:00 pm, that was obviously the best way to handle getting the winner's pork into the Champions judging.

Oh, I forgot to mention the lovely Illinois weather. After being served an awesome steak dinner with all the trimmings at the home of Mike & Theresa Lake, we headed a couple blocks east back to the cook-off site. The Butt to Butt cook's meeting was at 8:00 pm. Just as we arrived back at our assigned spaces, the skies opened and literally attempted to drown us. Early in the storm a bolt of lightning struck the ground with authority within a few hundred feet. I felt my heart stop for a second. Later I learned that it was strong enough to pop the GFI on the power receptacles. That's a new one for me. To make matters worse, my ole' cooking buddy Johnny Trigg preselected my cook site. It was directly down hill from a drainage pipe that ran under the street that bordered the event site and carried the street run-off from as far as I could see. There were rooster tails in the stream of water coming out of that pipe! Needless to say, my camp was at least ankle deep in water for the next several hours.

After spending a total of five hours in what I am now proclaiming the best Hampton Inn I've ever had the pleasure to lay my head, it was back to the cook site at 4:30 am on Friday to fire up for the Butt to Butt Invitational. Honestly cooking four butts does not require a great deal of concentration, and so it was sort of a boring Friday, unless you count watching the contestants travel back and forth down the street that borders the contest site because both entrances were closed due to mud. It just felt like we should somehow be doing more. We didn't even put up our canopies until about 1:30 pm, giving the ground time to dry out some.

The 3:00 pm and 5:00 pm turn-ins came and went without incident, which just left the 8:00 pm awards. For those of you that don't know this, the Invitational awards are a little different than typical KCBS awards. One by one, all of the competitors are acknowledged and asked to make their way to the front. Once everyone is there, the awards begin by announced the next to last place finish. This proceeds until there are only two people left standing and they, as well as the crowd that has gathered, knows that one of them won the event and the other finished last, DAL as we like to say. You have to be a good sport here, don't you? I mean, we've all finished last at some point in our cooking career. But I gotta tell you the truth, that day is NOT the day you want to be the one. Now that it's over, I can tell you all that my entire goal was just not to finish last in this thing. Anything else and I was going to be fine. Seriously. Then you start to look at the list of folks who have qualified for the event and you start to think "holy crap, I could very easily finish at the bottom of this thing." That feeling really started to set in about 7:00 pm as it was getting close to the scheduled awards.

Shad and Angie of A Boy and His BBQ, Darren and Sherry of Iowa's Own Smokey D's BBQ, and Ray and Caroline of Big Bubba's Roadhouse BBQ, all hosted a dinner on Friday. The spread included seafood enchiladas, chicken enchiladas, cowboy beans, red beans and rice, crawfish, fried walleye, fresh guacamole, and homemade salsa. As expected, the food was amazing. I want to thank them all for their hospitality. Of course, soon after Shad and Angie left my camp on Friday afternoon, I had to call Sheri to tell her I'd been invited to dine with the group. Sheri has experienced Shad's cuisine before and I knew she would be jealous. Just to rub it in, I took a picture of my plate for her. I tell this story now because for a brief period on Friday evening I forgot all about the fear of being last at the impending awards ceremony, instead enjoying some fine food with good friends.

Back to the Butt to Butt awards. So, one by one as we're introduced, we all make our way into the spotlight. Honestly, I was surprised that so many people came to see the awards. It only added to my feeling of dread. Then, before it really had time to sink in, Mike Lake began to call out the places. As the teams heard their names and to my surprise, instead of having a defeated look on their collective faces, they looked relieved, almost joyful. One by one teams were finding their way back into the crowd of spectators. Inwardly, I began to root to hear my name next. "Who the hell cares about winning this damn thing," I thought, "just don't let me be last!" With four teams to go, they call out Dodge Country Smokers. This leaves Bryon of, Mike of Weekend Smokers, and me standing at the front of the room. All of the sudden my chances to finish last improved to one in three. At that point this fast paced awards ceremony screeched to a halt. Everything seems to move in slow motion. I could hear my heart beating in my ears. I started to sweat. My hands were clammy. No longer could I discern the voices in the crowd. Honestly, it was a blur. Then it came. I heard "Pellet Envy" called. The overwhelming sense of relief was utterly amazing. Did I want to win? I can only answer that question by saying that I never come to lose. However, at that moment, not finishing last was just as good. Being the first runner up in that crowd of pork cooks was awesome. Being able to walk off knowing I turned in my best product and finishing as the first runner-up was just fine with me that day. Most days being the second place guy doesn't do much for a competitive cook. Not so that day.

Congratulations to Mike Flach of Weekend Smokers. He is the Butt to Butt X Invitational champion. Also, congrats to Candy Weaver of BBQr's Delight as the Tournament of Champions winner. Both can proudly display the boar's tooth necklace given to the winners of this event. This was a fun event. The setting was perfect. The only uncooperative element was the weather. If you ever get the chance to cook this event, do it. Just bring an umbrella and some good shoes.

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