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Barbecue is a guy thing, a throwback to the spit-roasted woolly mammoth, perhaps. It tends to be written about today (and debated in endless detail) like a sporting event, which in fact it has become: thousands of tiny local competitions are rapidly giving way to several major barbecue leagues, with their own playoffs, World Series—and six-figure purses. —Molly O’Neill, American Food Writing
Back on September 19, 2008, we were just two passionate backyard cooks entering the world of competition barbecue for the first time. We pulled into the parking lot of our first contest not knowing what we were getting ourselves into but confident in the recipes that had pleased our families and friends for years. Twenty-four hours later, as we hoisted cold beers and clasped our awards, we knew our lifelong passion for the backyard grill was officially solidified as a full-fledged addiction.
Growing up in Kansas City, I’ve been fully immersed in barbecue culture my entire life. In fact, I can almost pinpoint the exact moment that I was officially bitten by the barbecue bug.
The summer after my junior year of high school, my father arrived home from the office just like any other Friday afternoon. He tossed his briefcase on the kitchen table. A quick flip of the small brass latches and he opened the case to reveal two ziplock bags stuffed full of a dark red powder. He went on to proclaim that a coworker did competition barbecue and had passed along a batch of his super-secret rub and a few of his competition tricks. Suddenly weekend plans were set as we embarked on our first baby back ribs adventure.
A smoker was still foreign territory in my family. We were strictly gas grillers but certainly enjoyed the fruits of others’ labors when it came to barbecue. On this particular weekend, Dad dared to dabble in the smoke. What resulted were the most juicy and tender ribs I had ever eaten. At that exact moment barbecue became a complete and all-consuming experience.
College was the first time I spent an extended amount of time outside of Kansas City. Only two hours down the road at the University of Missouri, barbecue seemed to have dropped off the map. To get my fix, I would host impromptu dorm-room barbecues on my trusty George Foreman grill, cooking up chicken and burgers for anyone who wandered through.
I bought my first smoker while in college, and it didn’t take too long for Dad’s techniques to start coming back to me. Each smoke session brought back a new memory of his routine. It was only a matter of weeks before the whole neighborhood knew that the faint smell of hickory in the air meant that I was cooking up a feast.
As did so many post-college kids, I moved back in with my folks while I pursued my first “real” job. Thanks to the luxuries of the Internet, job searching only took up a couple hours of my day, which left me plenty of time to obsess over dinner. Soon my daily routine included a trip to the market to pick up ingredients for that night’s meal. My mother was probably the biggest fan of my cooking and even extended me an offer to become a permanent house-son. Unfortunately, I quickly found out that single ladies weren’t all that impressed with house-sons, so that lifestyle was short-lived. Soon after landing my first job, I met a young lady who recognized and embraced my passion for grilling and barbecue … and I married her.
Growing up in northwest Arkansas, I was sandwiched between Kansas City and Memphis and their distinctly different but equally delicious styles of barbecue. Arkansas barbecue mixed and matched both cities’ styles, which gave me a good foundation to eventually become a master of the grill.
Like Jason, I entered the barbecue world when I left home for college. I purchased my first smoker in hopes of making ribs like the ones I ate at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis. Much to my surprise (and chagrin), I found I had no idea what I was doing. Unlike Jason I didn’t have any secret rubs or competition tricks to get me started, so I was stuck experimenting. In fact, my first rack of baby back ribs came out tasting like the soot from my chimney and as chewy as a Goodyear tire. My friends and I pretended they were the best things ever, and I’m sure everyone secretly went for pizza when they left.
Not to be deterred, I continued attempting to make the best barbecue I could. Instead of inviting all my friends, I cooked alone, in isolation, while I worked out the kinks. It didn’t take long, and pretty soon I was making ribs like the ones in Memphis.
During my time in Arkansas I even invented my own side dish named after yours truly, the Chronion: a cored white onion, stuffed with beef bouillon and butter, seasoned with salt and pepper, and smoked for three hours. Everyone wanted these things like they were Super Bowl tickets. Now someone, somewhere, probably has made this already, but I’m going to go ahead and claim inventor status because I didn’t know about it!
Fast-forward five years and I found myself in Kansas City. About two weeks after moving, I stopped to get gas and became confused as to why there was a line of a hundred people out the door. I went in to pay, and the most intoxicating scent I had ever encountered was floating through the air. Little did I know I was standing in the world-famous Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue (yes, it’s in a gas station). I paid for my gas, stood in line for an hour or so, and rediscovered my love for barbecue right then and there.
My trip to Oklahoma Joe’s that day put me into serious high gear. I went out and bought another smoker and once again started trying to perfect everything I could. This time, however, I was in Kansas City and surrounded by barbecue experts on every corner. My skills improved, and my next goal was competition.
Fast-forward another five years or so (hey, quit trying to figure out how old I am) and I met my wife. All of her friends and the neighborhood discovered how good I am behind the smoker, so every time there is a party (or any other function for that matter), they asked me to cook. Scratch that, they pretty much just inform me that I’m cooking. My soon-to-be-wife mentioned that a college friend of hers had a boyfriend who’s into barbecue. We were set up on a man date, and the next thing you know we were cooking for our first competition!
Our worlds came together once our wives first discovered that we shared the same passion for barbecue. We were both interested in starting a competition team, so we partnered with our friend Bryant Gish to create Burnt Finger BBQ. With our first contest only a few short months away, our newly formed team got together for an official practice run. We laid out a time line, did a run-through, and crossed our fingers.
At last, the big day finally arrived. Since this was our first contest, we kicked off the event with a small party to ease any nerves before settling into our competition routine later that evening. As night turned into morning, all of our processes were still on pace with our time lines. As morning became afternoon, each one of our competition meats came off the smoker just as we planned. With only a quick pit stop on the cutting board for final touch-ups, each entry was sent to the judges like clockwork. And as quickly as it began, our first barbecue contest was complete.
While we’re always confident in our cooking style, we headed to the awards ceremony with open minds and no real expectations. Little did we know at the time that we’d be walking out of our first barbecue contest with two awards! Fueled by excitement and adrenaline, we decided to enter the American Royal Barbecue.
For those not familiar with the American Royal, it’s the world’s largest barbecue contest with approximately 500 teams entering the open division every year. It’s considered the World Series of barbecue and is THE weekend that makes barbecue teams into barbecue legends. Plus, it’s the biggest party Kansas City has to offer with nearly 100,000 people pouring into the festival grounds to embrace barbecue culture.
As with our first contest, we settled into our cooking routine late in the evening and set out to hit our time lines. With the exception of a slight panic attack upon discovering that we overcooked our ribs a bit, everything went smoothly, and we were once again happy with our entries. With fingers crossed, we headed to the awards ceremony hoping our team would crack the top 100.
As the announcer began to cycle through the winners in each category, we eagerly listened, hoping to get a glimpse of some of the legendary barbecue teams that were competing. By the time the brisket category rolled around, we had all lost interest in the awards and were BSing among ourselves. Out of nowhere, we heard a voice from the row behind us say, “Congrats, guys!” As we looked up, we saw the giant projector screen next to the stage displaying “5th Place: Burnt Finger BBQ.” Excited and disbelieving, we made our way to the front of the arena to collect our fifth-place brisket ribbon at the biggest barbecue contest in the world.
The American Royal pretty much wrapped up the 2008 season for Burnt Finger BBQ. With the winter cold beginning to set in, we decided to turn our attention to a new project. Since both of us come from a marketing and technology background, we decided to launch a Web site geared toward the barbecue community. Officially launched on October 22, 2008, BBQAddicts.com quickly became our little corner of the Internet.
Not two months after launching the Web site, we received a request from a bacon news group wondering what kind of uses we had for bacon within the barbecue world. We immediately thought of a smoked bacon–wrapped sausage log. In the barbecue community, smoked chubs of sausage are rather common, and are better known as “fatties.” Wrapping delicious strips of bacon around a fatty could only make it better, so we set out to document our process for the Web site. After a weekend of cooking, and a “buy-one-get-one-free” special on bacon at the local market, we emerged from our test kitchen with the first Bacon Explosion.
A couple days later we unveiled the recipe to the world through a simple message on Twitter. Bacon Explosion immediately gained a cult following as people began forwarding the recipe to their friends and family. Twitter was instantaneously abuzz with bacon mania, which drove nearly 10,000 unique visitors to our Web site within the first day. Over the next couple of weeks, traffic to the site continued to build. The Bacon Explosion had been sent around the world with strong support on link sites such as StumbleUpon, Digg, and Reddit.
Intrigued by our unique blend of social networking and barbecue expertise, The New York Times immediately sent a photographer out to capture the Bacon Explosion in all its glory. At the time of the photo shoot, the Times had only informed us that we were in contention for an article. A few days later we received the official call from the editor announcing that our Bacon Explosion was a lock for an article. It wasn’t until two short days before the publication hit newsstands we learned that we had actually earned a front-page feature in the January 28 issue of The New York Times food section.
Once the article was released, our lives were immediately turned upside down. Our phones were flooded with appearance requests, as our barbecue sausage recipe was garnering attention from major media outlets across the world, including Fox News, CNN, Kansas City Star, etc.
The Bacon Explosion has since become a staple recipe for backyard barbecues across the world. We even launched a fully cooked retail version, as well as a line of sauces and rubs, to help amateur cooks achieve the exact flavor of our original Bacon Explosion. Most importantly, though, we’re happy to have the chance to share our barbecue passion. This is the food that we love and hope that other backyard grillers will love too. The simple fact is that barbecue really does make everything better.
© 2010 Aaron Chronister