Sauce, Smoke, and Lack of Sleep: My Journey into Competition Barbecue

Like any other red-blooded Southern male, I love barbecue. Pulled pork, ribs, brisket, chances are if you put it on the smoker and leave it there for hours at a time, I’ll eat it. I love to grill myself, but the world of barbecue, the process of taking a tough piece of meat and by smoke and time turning it into something tender and delicious, that I had never done much of. A steak or some pork chops is one thing, a whole pork shoulder or a dozen slabs of ribs is entirely another. This past weekend, my love of smoked meats and my curiosity about how it all comes together got the best of me, so I agreed to work overnight following Friday’s baseball game with the Bluff City Bulldogs at the 34th Annual Pig Cooking Contest for Super Bulldog Weekend.

This was not my first time to enjoy the delicious food this team prepares, I had made a stop by their tent prior to any sporting events part of my calendar for the past three years. It was only after last year that Hayes Brooks, one of the team members and a friend of mine, proferred the invitation to join them for a night’s worth of work on the smoker. I agreed, thinking that in nearly 365 days, he’d forget and I could just go back to showing up and picking the choice pieces of meat from his selection. Alas, a week ago, he texted me about it, and how I could I go back on my word. So I braced myself for a long day and night of RBI’s and ribs.

The team from left to right, Matt Farrell, Bryan Farrell, Brian Hadad, Hayes Brooks

When I accepted this invitation back in 2018, I could not have imagined that a massive cold front and storm system would find its way to Starkville for the weekend. It rained the entire night on us, ranging from an intermittent drizzle to a full on downpour by the morning’s end. We constantly had to drain water from the roof of the two canopy tents we were sitting under, which made for quite the adventure of keeping the food, and ourselves, relatively dry. I arrived at the spot around 10 PM on Friday night, basically as soon as I had wrapped up my work at Dudy Noble.

The setup was this, we had four slabs of ribs to smoke for test purposes. We were using two different dry rubs, two different wet rubs, and two different sauces, and we would taste from each slab to figure out which one we liked best. The rubs were simple, prepurchased, as were the sauces, which surprised me. What I knew about competition barbecue led me to believe there would be some super secret rub recipe with 20 spices, and I had enjoyed Hayes’ sauce on many occasions. But here the guys opted to keep it easy, to quote Matt Farrell, one of the team members, “why reinvent the wheel?” The wet rubs were equally simple, two slabs would get a butter, brown sugar, and apple juice mixture, the other butter and some Mississippi State five pepper jelly.

A look at one of the wet rubs, butter and pepper jelly.

While we waiting on the testers to absorb the applied rub, we began preparation of the competition ribs, thirteen full slabs of baby backs. Again, the work was very simple, we smeared yellow mustard over each rack, then the dry rub. The mustard was interesting to me, as I don’t like it as a condiment, but you can’t taste a hint of it in the final product. It acts as a glue for the rub to adhere to the meat, but the tangy flavor you associate with it just mellows out through the cooking process.

We then moved to prepping the grill. As you can imagine, the team’s smoker was gigantic, large enough for a whole hog, a competition they had won in previous Super Bulldog Weekends. Their setup was this, attach some tin foil roasting pans to the side where the ribs would sit, allowing for indirect cooking, and filling those pans with water to provide moisture and flavor, as the fat would render out and drip into the water, then be steamed back into the meat.

Once that was done, we went back to the testers, this time for sauce. We applied one sauce to two slabs, another to the other two, giving us four slabs that would have different tastes and varying levels of sweet, spice, and smoke. From there, it was on to the thing I had been looking forward to the most, eating.

Saucing the test ribs.

You can see the water collecting on the canopy in that video, the rain was just relentless. We decided that slab #2, the butter/pepper jelly wet rub with the “Smoky Mountain” sauce had the balance we wanted, sweet with good spice, nice smoky flavor and the right amount of heat at the back end. That would be what we would put on our competition slabs when it came time in the morning to flavor them. For now however, it was all about the late night snack.

Nothing left but the bones.

Finally at 3 in the morning, the time arrived, and we loaded up the massive smoker with our ribs, setting them up for three hours of indirect cooking. As you can see below, we had to play a game of Meat Tetris to fit all the slabs onto the side of the grill away form the coals and wood, a mixture of pecan and apple. Once that was done, we went on to the task we had been looking forward to since the beginning of the night, a quick nap.

At 6:20 AM, I awoke to Hayes tapping on my car window, it was time to add the wet rub to each slab. This was the first time I saw why you need a team. All of the work prior to that, one person could have handled if they just scheduled it efficiently. Here, you needed all four of us to make the process go in the window we had left. We set up an assembly line and got to work. After an hour, which we spent going home to shower and clean up our station, we added the sauce.

While waiting on the final product, I made the rounds and checked out a couple of other teams. To our immediate right were some students representing Mississippi State’s Animal and Dairy Science team. They had some high tech equipment and some innovative ideas, including cooking their ribs on top of a pork skin, just fat on top of fat.

MSU’s Animal and Dairy Science team smoker.

I also took a look at the pulled pork of another team from the university, this time the MSU Extension Service. Their work made me wish I had some bread handy.

When I returned, it was time to get our ribs ready for the first round of judging. The judging worked in two parts, we would prepare a box of ribs to be judged blindly, the judges would not know who had prepared the food. To that end, we selected the best looking ribs off the smoker, using all of the slabs we had cook to put together what we hoped would be a perfect box. The second part would come later, as three totally different judges would come to the tent and eat, while Hayes and Matt would walk them through our preparation process and some facts about the team. From there, it was out of our hands.

I wish I could end the story with a picture of us holding up a trophy as the winners, but alas, we failed to place in the competition. I would put the blame on the new guy, I’m sure somehow it was my fault. I’ll say this, I didn’t get to taste the other ribs, but they must have been awfully good to beat what we put out Saturday morning. It ended up being a 12 hour process from my arrival to my departure, as I took a couple of slabs off the smoker to share with my fellow media members covering the Saturday game at Dudy Noble. All in all, I felt that not only did I have a good time, but I learned a lot about what it takes to make great barbecue. Will I do it again next year? I already agreed to do so under one condition, that we do the whole hog. The guys were more than happy to agree, so I’ll be ready for another sleepless and smoky night next April.