Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Back to Lynchburg

Kris and I headed out for the 23rd Annual Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue on Tuesday morning. Along for the ride again this year were Al and Phylis Eastman, Ted Lorson, and Maggie. Joining us for the first time was our Nephew Zack Healy. We decided to drive straight through to Lynchburg, TN again this year. This decision puts us in Tullahoma, TN by 4AM. Great, we're here!! But nothings open. Well, except the Awful Waffle. So, while we wait for Budget to open, and the hotel to let us check in, we go get breakfast. The Waffle House at 4AM is an interesting place to say the least. We had so much fun in fact, we went back at 7:30AM for breakfast number two. A few hours later the Eastman's were checked-in, they had their car, and the rest of us were making our way down Route 55. I love that 12 mile drive into Lynchburg. Passing the Motlow State Community College, the road winds down the hill as we pass the beautiful grounds of Moore County High School. Then I see the sign: Lynchburg Welcomes You! we're here; we've made it. As we pass the Jack Daniel's Distillery I can feel it. When we take that left and drive through Lynchburg Town Square, pass the Hardware Store, and pull onto Wiseman Park I can't help but smile. We pass Moorhead Pavilion on the way to our spot. All I can think of is what will happen in there on Saturday night. Who's going to win? Will we get a call? Will we bomb? I have to break my thoughts and remember why we're here. I'm not going to worry about these things right now. It's only Wednesday afternoon and I have two days before I need to think about cooking. Lets go have some fun.

Thursday is a great day in the Hollow. I love to relax and watch all the teams roll in. Watching teams pull giant trailers in to small spots confirms my decision of arriving early. We make coffee, nurse small hangovers, and enjoy as the misty weather turns into partly sunny. On tap for Thursday was the distillery tour, shopping in the square, and later on that night a great dinner with friends. Late night included much laughter, spirits, and visiting with teams that we don't see often enough. It was great catching up with everyone, talking about The BBQ Circuit, and staying warm with a bottle of Jack. We partied into the night without a single care of turn-in times, trimming meats, or staying focused. That sort of thing just didn't seem to fit into that night. Somehow it wasn't even relevant. Sure, we're at one of the most revered contest of the year, but worrying about it seems, oddly, stupid. We walked around all night, found people to hang with, and made memories. And that's all I really cared about that night.

Friday morning greeted me with a wonderful cocktail of coffee and Ibuprofen. After a hot shower we were off to our annual trip to Miss Mary Bobo's. Thanks to Steph for making these arrangements once again this year and including us in them. Miss Mary Bobo's is one of the highlights from the trip. It's something that I hope I'll never miss. Like all great meals in your life it usually has little to do with the food. For me it's the big communal table, the Host telling stories of Lynchburg, the passing of food family-style, and sharing this with my wife and my friends. In that intimate setting you can really feel the happiness. Oh, and as a bonus, the food rocks!

Friday afternoon we did a little prep, then got ready for the Parade of Teams, then off to the party up on The Hill. Also two things that I hope I'll never miss or get tired of. Back from The Hill I fired up the pit and started to get focused. The good news is that that didn't last too long. We were set up adjacent to I Smell Smoke!!! and the area was dubbed 'NEBSville'. Needless to say we had a revolving cast of characters to hang out by the fire with. Great beers were consumed, everyone was laughing, and if the fire or Jack Daniel's didn't warm you up, the company sure did. I did what I could do to hit all my 'triggers'. I think I missed one or two, but that's okay. I wouldn't change a thing about that night. That day was one of the best I've ever had down in the Hollow.

Saturday morning was cold and crisp, perfect weather for cooking BBQ. Besides the usual 4 categories we were also doing a Chef's Choice, sauce, and a dessert. So, it was going to be a busy day. But, we had a plan and a lot of help from our extended team. The cook went great and we were pleased with everything...except the ribs. This didn't surprise me too much, they have been our worst category all year long. We've tweaked them over the past few comps but it might be 'back to the drawing board' with our ribs over the off-season. Oh well. Our best bet I thought was with our pork or one of the ancillary categories. I know I've been saying over the last few posts that I'm just there to have fun. As factual as that may be, I really, really, want to hear our name called. To me that would be a lot of fun! So, we breakdown, clean up, and head to the awards.

The level of anticipation, excitement, and nerves are off the charts. It's like every other award ceremony X 1000. Surrounded by our friends, family, and our peers, we anxiously wait for the awards to start. After the usual 'achievement' awards they got on with the categories. Sauce was first - nothing. Next was the Chef's Choice. They started to announce top three only. This happens at The Jack a lot. Sometimes they call top 10, sometimes top 5, this time top 3. Oh well, no calls for Chef's Choice. On to BBQ. Chicken - nothing. Ribs were up next and we didn't expect much. But at least they were calling top 10 in the BBQ categories, so you never know. In the back of my head, maybe, just maybe, we could squeak out a 9th or 10th place in a category. As they announced ribs, and they got closer to the top, my hope was fleeting. I start thinking ahead towards pork, or brisket. Just then the Emcee hands the microphone to Master Distiller, Jeff Arnett, to announce the 1st place winner in the rib category. And in his thick Southern drawl Mr. Arnett said "Lakesiiide SmokERRs." A moment that I will never forget. That walk up to the stage is one of the best feelings a competitive BBQer can have. It's a whirlwind. People cheer, cameras flash, and in that 30 seconds your anxiety melts away. We walk back to where we were sitting and open up the bottle of Jack that we just won. Our friends congratulate us and all together we quickly kill that bottle. The rest of the awards are kind of a blur. But at the end of the day all 6 teams from Massachusetts got up to that stage. And one Massachusetts team made that final walk as World Champions. Huge congrats to Smokin' Hoggz on their win. We finish Saturday off in the Hollow by parting late into the night. It's cold, the fires are extinguished, and the crowd is thinning, but I don't want that day to ever end. Because I know tomorrow we start our journey back.

The long ride home gives me a chance to think. I'm tired; it's a lot of work to have this much fun. I reflect on this past season. I realize that chances are I'll never be able to have a better season than this one. So what do you do? What's the end game? The phrase 'quit while you're ahead' keeps on echoing in my head. It's brief, but still, it's there. But what dominates my thoughts are the laughter and smiles of my friends. The great food and drinks we've had. The late night partying with strangers. Sharing this with my wife and family. And all the great times I've had on the BBQ Trail over the years. By the time we get home I'm thinking more clearly. The thoughts of quitting are left on the road. I start to get excited for next year. I don't need to have a better season than this one, I just need to get back to Lynchburg.