GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Judges at last Saturday’s First Coast Ham Jam not only were required to be certified members of the Florida BBQ Association, but they had to pass a course in what makes good barbecue.
Or is it barbeque?
Or BBQ? Or Bar-B-Que? Bar-B-Cue? Or just ‘Que?
How can there be a definitive winner – or a barbecue expert – in a contest where we can’t agree how to spell it?
We can’t even get the pig’s anatomy correct. Did you know pork butt actually comes from the front shoulder?
Apparently, memories and common sense don’t exist in a foggy haze of well-guarded ingredients, sweet hickory smoke and sleep deprivation.
Everyone has their favorite way to cook barbeque. And like a baby’s picture, everyone believes theirs is the best.
Vinegar versus tomato versus mustard; beef versus pork; dry versus wet. Some folks in North Alabama prefer a white sauce made of mayonnaise and corn syrup, while Kentuckians are partial to throwing sheep in the smoker.
But when it comes to BBQ, the only true common denominators are time and taste.
“There’s no quick answer,” said Middleburg’s William Morris, whose Big Ash BBQ competed against other teams at the Clay County Fairgrounds. “It’s all about the time and preparation that goes into it. That’s what makes good Bar-B-Que.”
Morris fired up his grill Friday night. And for the record, Morris favors tomato-based sauces with a shot a cinnamon whiskey. You didn’t need a course to know that was a winner.
Ham Jam was an official stop for the Florida BBQ Association. Winners were divided into four categories – chicken, ribs, pork butt and brisket – with one being selected as Grand Champion.
Pig-Chicka Cow-Cow BBQ, last year’s FBA state champion, finished second in chicken and pork butt and first in ribs and brisket to earn the Grand Champion’s title. They were up for nearly 24 hours and withstood heavy rain and hail during the night from the outer edges of Tropical Storm Nestor. They delivered their finished products to a panel of judges with bloodshot eyes, a pasty body lotion made of sweat and smoke and a sense of self-assurance.
Each entry looked perfect. Each sauce was personalized – and secretive – to appease to the most-discerning palate.
“I’m a vinegar-based guy,” said Orange Park’s Jerry Bentley of JB’s BBQ. “That’s a little unusual in Florida. I’m really out here by myself. It got ugly during the night, but I’m still here. You have to have a real passion for this. I don’t change my recipes, but I do look for new ways to make it better. I don’t think anyone is completely satisfied.”
Red Voisen of Middleburg’s Black Creek Smokers favors sweet molasses in his sauce, while Brian Morgan of Belly Up BBQ likes a mustard-based sauce.
Most at Ham Jam stuck with a tomato-based sauce that’s traditional to Florida.
Tim Malloy said he’s competed with Jacksonville’s Belly Up for years and he sticks with his tomato sauce, although is partner, Brian Coleman, said he makes “minor” adjustments to the recipe based on geography.
“I might put a little vinegar is the sauce if we’re in parts of Georgia or North Carolina,” he said. “You have to know where you’re at, what the judges like.”
Coleman also offered another competition secret, saying there isn’t a secret to perfect the smoking process.
“It’s done when it’s done,” he said. “That’s the challenge, especially when you’re on the clock to turn something by a certain time. You never really know how long it takes to get it right. You can’t set a timer on perfection.”
And that takes a lot of dedication and patience, Fleming Island’s Tim Mykytka said.
“You have to love what you do, especially when you’re out here for 24 hours cooking,” he said. “You need a real passion for it.”
Me, I’m passionate about eating Bar-B-Cue. No matter how you spell it.