Thursday, June 14, 2012

Same as it Ever Was

This weekend we are off to compete at The Rock 'N Ribfest in Merrimack, NH. This will be our seventh year competing there; it was the first comp that we ever did. I can remember packing for that competition vividly: nervous, butterflies, and nausea. I remember thinking 'when do these feelings go away?' Apparently, it's more than seven years. At every comp that I get ready for I get those same feelings in my gut. Nervousness, anxiety, but eager. Over the years the actual work of getting ready for a comp has gotten a lot easier. But those apprehensive feelings are still there. Competing at that first comp seven years ago we just didn't want to embarrass ourselves. This's the same thing.

They say the more things change, the more they stay the same. I never really put much thought into that saying before. But, it kind of works here. Things have absolutely, unequivocally changed for Lakeside Smokers over the past seven years. And yet, my thoughts and feelings are the same as they were getting ready for that first comp. I still don't want to embarrass myself. Sure, what I consider embarrassing now differs greatly from seven years ago. But still, it's the same feeling. I want to go there, compete, put up the best food that I can, and try to do well. At every contest over the past seven years that is all that I wanted to do. That's stayed the same. But what's changed are the goals we have set for ourselves. When you first start competing you just don't want to come in Dead Ass Last. After a few comps you just want a call to the stage. Once you get that, you just want a better call to the stage. After that happens you set your sights on a first place in a category. Once achieved, you start thinking...'can I win a contest?' Yes, yes you can. Then when you finally win your first contest the stupidest thing happens: you want to win every contest! But that's not realistic. In fact it's impossible. But's always on your mind.

The Rock 'N Ribfest has been a special comp for Lakeside Smokers over the years. It was our first comp. It was our first call to the stage. And, in 2009, it was our first Grand Championship; and the ticket to our first Jack Daniel's World Invitational. It's only 30 minutes from our home and we have hosted many parties there for our friends and family over the years. Like every year in the past, I'm looking forward to getting up there early Friday morning and setting up our site. I like to watch as new teams show up to their first comp. It's like looking into the past. That was us once: wide-eyed, curious, a little scared. And on some level, that is still us. Things have certainly changed for us over the years, but most things have stayed exactly the same.

Lakeside Smoker's First Trophy
Merrimack, NH 2006

Monday, June 4, 2012

Trying Not to Suck

May has been a busy month for Lakeside Smokers. A few last minute practices, a new sponsor, and back to back comps. The month started off with some great news: a new sponsor. I had been talking with BJ's Wholesale Club since last year about a sponsorship. The whole thing started because of the great relationships I have with the butchers at BJ's. I visit 2 (sometimes 3) clubs on a regular basis. The butchers know me, we talk, they're invested in my hobby. When I ask them to 'bring out every case of pork butts you have, so I can look through them,' they don't mind. They know I'm serious. When I see them the following week and they ask me how did we do at the comp, they seem genuinely happy when I tell them that we did good. They feel connected on some level; they helped. So, from those friendships was born a sponsorship. It was a great way to start off the season.

After a few more chicken practices it was off to Green Lane, PA for a beautiful Spring weekend. The Smoke in The Valley competition just gets it right. As a competitor you really can not ask for any better. The volunteers, led by Shawn Tucker, are focused on the teams. They are there for us. Power, water, big sites, trash removal, ice delivery, grey water removal, and an extremely relaxed attitude towards everything. I know all this sounds like the basics, but you would be surprised on how many comp organizers get these things wrong. But not Green Lane, they get it right.

We had a good cook and everything seemed to go well. I never feel confident when that happens. Usually it never ends great. Most real good Competition BBQ stories never start with 'we had a good cook and everything seemed to go well...' So we went to the awards hopeful, but realistic. It was a good day, not a great day. We took 3rd in ribs, 5th in pork, and 6th in brisket. We tanked chicken (glad we practiced) but ended up 3rd overall. Good, not great. But what was great was getting back down to Green Lane, drinking with friends new and old, and getting a little redemption from our 2010 results.

Unpack, clean, repack, work, off to Lexington, MA. Back to back comps has advantages and disadvantages. Some disadvantages are the time on the road, the time away from home, and the feeling that all you do is competition BBQ. For me the biggest advantage is that you stay sharp. You just cooked a comp 6 days ago; you just did this. Set up, cook, break down, go home. It almost becomes robotic. Do what you did last weekend, only try to do it better. Or, in the words of Brendan Burek: 'try not to suck today.' So we set up at the Lexington Battle-Green BBQ Festival and took his advice. This second year event was put on by Steve Eastridge of Meat@Slims fame. Working with limited space and resources Steve was able to provide the basics to all the teams there. The event also had some great bands and BBQ vendors for the large crowds. But more importantly Steve was able to raise a ton of money for the LABBB Collaborative Program. A great charity indeed. Nice job, Steve!

Saturday night was spent visiting and drinking with a few teams. Beers and a few shots of Jack at our site, tequila at Team Agave's site, and way too much Honey Jack at Saucehound's site. I somehow managed to hit all my triggers and stay on schedule. I found the back seat of my car by 2AM and set my alarm for 5:15AM. Three hours might not sound like enough sleep, but on the circuit it's fine. I usually can't sleep when I compete anyway so just to lay down and stop drinking for three hours is probably a good thing. Sunday morning I was a little foggy. Thankfully, we have a solid timeline and do not change anything during a comp. Like I said: it's kinda robotic. Kris and I both thought the food came out much better the week before in Green Lane. This weekend the food tasted good, not great. And on some level, deep inside, that makes me happy. If you compete long enough, you'll start to understand why. The more you like something, the more the judges will hate it, guaranteed. So, I've stopped liking our food... or at least I've psychologically stopped liking our food. Anyway, I guess my mind games worked and the judges seemed to like our food that day. Lakeside took 9th in chicken, 2nd in ribs, 3rd in pork, 1st in brisket, and we were named Grand Champions for the overall. I'd like to thank Brendan for his words of wisdom, and also congratulate him for 'not sucking' either. Congrats on Reserve, man!

June starts with a few weeks off from competing and then we have another back to back. I know it's a few weeks away, but I'm ready. The gear is cleaned and packed in the trailer ready to go. All my supplies are ordered. The butchers at BJ's know the dates and will bring in a few extra cases for me to look through. The practicing is over, and in my mind I'm setting up my site at our next event. I'll follow our timeline, keep our schedule, and try not to suck.