24 slabs of ribs, 40 lbs of pork shoulder, six whole ducks and one ridiculously good time. That was the final tally for our teams at the first annual Music City BBQ Festival in downtown Nashville.
Part college reunion and part bbq competition, the weekend turned out to be a first class sh&t show. And I mean that in a good way. We entered two teams, Nice Racks and Marr-B-Q, in the backyard division. My friend Andy Moats and I captained Nice Racks, while Adam and Aaron Marr were at the helm of Marr-B-Q. Dave Morris played Switzerland.
The pre-event emails might as well have had “VEGAS” in the subject line. The gloves were off from the opening salvo when it was suggested that Nice Racks needed to be called Nice “rhymes with rocks”. A Zima reference soon followed and it was downhill from there.
In order to do the weekend justice, I’m going to try my best to recount it chronologically.
2:52 PM- Andy sends email with subject line: “Nice Racks gets mention in Tennessean” with a link to the article
4:33 PM- The Marrs respond with a claim that the Metromix is a social website for metrosexuals. More Zima references.
7:00 PM- Andy and I drive to his family’s Golden Rule BBQ restaurant in Clarksville, TN to pick up supplies (the original Golden Rule is in Birmingham).
12:30 PM- Andy and I blow up the inflatable pig in the driveway. The last time I was that excited for a giant toy was when my grandparents pulled up on Christmas morning with beanbag chairs and the Cobra Rattler plane.
2:30 PM- After a grocery run and loading the trailer with smoker, chairs, coolers and astro-turf (a touch of class), we arrive at the site. The location was awesome. Downtown Nashville on 1st Ave, stumbling distance from Broadway and the honky tonks.
3:00 PM- The Marrs leave Atlanta.
3:01 PM- the first sh%t talking text is sent. This would continue for the entire drive.
4:00 PM- The LA Grillers arrive next to us. A father, son, grandfather/father-in-law team, these guys were a wonderful addition to our weekend. The LA stood for Lower Antioch, and they would turn out to be everything you could hope for in a competition neighbor.
6:30 PM- The Marrs arrive and the first beer of the long weekend is cracked. Aaron has a fantastic ‘stach for the weekend. His wife is less than thrilled.
8:00 PM- Adam realizes his truck is dead.
8:15 PM- Adam gets a jump from the LA Grillers.
8:16 PM- Adam closes the door with the truck running.
8:16:01 PM- Adam locks his keys in his truck.
8:16:10 PM- I fall on the ground laughing with tears in my eyes.
8:16:11 PM- Adam is not amused
8:30ish PM- Cops show up to help open the car. With a slim jim in the door and a cop working to open it, a lady walks up to Adam and asks “y’all lock your keys in the car”. Adam approaches meltdown. Luckily the future Darwin winner walked away before things got ugly.
8:45 PM- I pick up a 1/6 barrel keg of Blackstone’s porter. Quite possibly the best beer you’ll put in your mouth (if you like porter). Thanks to Kent for providing Nice Racks with good beer.
9:00 PM- Prep ribs a little bit and sit on the back deck until way too late in the evening.
8:00 AM- I awaken the Marr brothers to a triumphant yell and a suggestion of what they can do to themselves after finding the bbq festival story mentioning Nice Racks on the front page of the Tennessean weekend section. They don't share my excitment.
9:00 AM- A potential showstopper occurs as Aaron and I drop the Marr’s glass jar of secret rub while loading the trailer.
9:15 AM- Adam makes up a rub from my spices from memory. Crisis averted.
10:00 AM- We arrive at the site and decide that in the spirit of friendship, we will merge Nice Racks and Marr-B-Q into one team with two entries, splitting any prize money and avoiding situations like you see at the YMCA where grown men in jerseys scream at each other during pickup basketball games. We vow to focus our sh$t talking on the LA Grillers.
10:01 AM- First beers. At this point Marr-B-Q “gears up”…t-shirts, head bands, sweat bands and aprons. Nice Racks makes mental notes for next year.
10:02 AM- Start charcoal chimney to get fire going. Nice Racks is using a 10-year-old Oklahoma Joe’s smoker with a firebox on the side and Marr-B-Q is using a Weber charcoal grill. The LA Grillers are using a Green Egg. Cheaters.
The fun (and sometimes frustrating) part about barbecue is that you are responsible for every part of the process. Unlike cooking in an oven where you punch in a temperature and just worry about prepping the food, with barbecue you have to decide what type of fuel you want (mix of charcoal and hickory for us), figure out the right amount to get the temperature you want (around 225), and then you have to make sure the smoker stays at that temperature for 8 hours or so. I’ll probably add fire about once an hour for twelve hours. While not a Herculean task by any means, keeping the smoker at temperature does get a little more challenging when things like weather, beer and bantering with the LA Grillers get in the way.
10:30 AM- “Meat Inspection”- Thankfully we didn’t need the services of our in-house urologist, Dr. Dave, for this process. At every bbq competition they come around and make sure that the meat is held at the proper temperature (or just on ice) so that you won’t kill the judges.
11:00 AM Start prepping ribs and shoulders (15 racks and 2 shoulders).
It’s kind of cool to see every team lined up working. There’s not a lot of talking…it’s kind of like a longer version of Iron Chef. Everyone is on the clock to make sure they get their times right, and while still in a good mood, there’s definitely an element of competition going on.
12:30ish- Cooks Meeting- all of the backyard cooks gathered to talk about the rules of the contest, turn in times, and suggested servings for the judges (6 samples with enough for two bites each). Two things we noticed about the cook’s meeting:
1) Adam and I were the only cooks to bring beer to the meeting
2) It’s odd to see a giant redneck with a beard and camouflage UT hat ask “so would you recommend a garnish or not”
1:00 PM- Ribs go on the smoker. My plan is to smoke them for about three hours with just the rub on them. Then I’ll baste them with our sauce and wrap them in foil, putting them back on the smoker at the opposite end as the firebox. I’ll unwrap them with about a half hour to go. That way they get a good smoke flavor and stay moist without getting overdone or too bitter from the hickory.
1:30 PM- Herb from the LA Grillers asks if we’ll help carry his trophy back.
1:31 PM- We inform Herb that the YMCA bbq festival is next week and everybody will get a trophy.
3:00 PM- Adam pulls open the lid on his smoker to find that a couple of his racks are burning. Not good. The triage unit comes running with foil and Marr-B-Q sauce. The barbecue godfather, Danny Marr, is called in for a consultation. There is debate as to whether they saved the ribs in time.
4:30 PM- Nice Racks ribs are starting to pull away from the bone. Time to pull them off, lightly sauce them and wrap them in foil.
6:15 PM- Open up the foil and let the slabs caramelize a little…the sauce and the moisture from the foil need to cook off a little.
6:40 PM- With 20 minutes to go, both teams are scrambling to find their best six pieces. I enlist the help of some trusted advisors to make last minute sauce and rub adjustments. I’m pretty pleased with the results. Adam seems to think that the Marr-B-Q ribs will finish runner-up to the last place entry. Both us place our best offerings on a bed of parsley in the numbered containers the organizers provided us with.
6:55 PM- I’m not going to lie, I was pretty excited about turning in my first competition entry. The thirty minutes leading up to turn-in actually made me a little nervous.
6:57 PM- Nice Racks and Marr-B-Q make our way down 1st Ave to the turn-in table.
I think they should have theme music for folks as they make the walk… the scene in Office Space where everyone is walking in slow motion to “Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangsta” comes to mind.
7:00 PM- “I just turned in turd-on-a-bone” was Adam’s description of Marr-B-Q’s entry. The rest of us disagreed whole-heartedly…I thought his ribs were pretty damn good. We’d find out Saturday at 6 PM what the judges thought.
7:02 PM- With the competition over, it was time to eat some bbq and really start drinking. In the words of the immortal Tex…“It’s On”.
We go through all of our ribs in about twenty minutes. A couple hours later, the first pork shoulder goes as fast as we can put in the platter.
Special thanks to Tim for bringing the hoecakes…they were so good that by the weekend he was known as “Timmy Hoe Cakes”. Hopefully for his sake that nickname doesn’t stick.
10:45 PM- Just as we’re getting ready to head to Broadway, I decide to check the coolers with the meat. The ice is all but melted in the meat cooler.
Of course the ice truck has long been shut down, leaving us with three options:
1) try and get a cab as the concert at the arena was letting out
2) drag a cooler to the hotel nearby and pull a bush league move by draining every icemaker they have
3) take the pull-cart to the gas station on the other side of the river
Wow those options all sucked. For whatever reason, option 3 seemed like the best idea, so Andy and I took the “rickshaw” across the Shelby Street Bridge all the way to the Exxon.
Here’s a picture of me dragging the ice back across the bridge. It seemed like a noble venture the first ¼ of a mile, but then the reality set in that it was at least a mile and a half to the store. If you Google buzzkill, you’ll see this picture.
12:15 AM- When we left there were probably twenty people and the girls in the group were starting the late-night-girl-dancing that guys for years have mistaken as code for “so you’re saying there’s a chance”. We returned to find just Adam, Dave and LA Grillers Mike rocking out to Journey. Needless to say I was a little disappointed. No offense, fellas.
12:30 AM- Our shoulders and ribs on ice, we head down to Roberts for some PBRs, completely oblivious to the fact that we look like bus boys who just got off the “sloppy joe night” shift at Sizzler.
2:00 AM- We return to our tent for some late night whiskey shots and “pork tacos”- a phrase Adam used to describe open faced pulled pork sandwiches with Cool Ranch Doritos on top. This seems like a great idea at the time.
3:00 AM- Cab drops us off at home.
9:00 AM- “What A&*hole made this a two day festival?” is the first thought that runs through my throbbing head. A look around the room for the cat that pooped in my mouth turns up empty and I begrudgingly get up to start the whole process over again.
10:30 AM- Dave drops his fruitcup on the grass outside the gates of the festival. He’s got a long drive to Memphis ahead of him for a wedding. His wife Betsy deserves a wife of the year award for letting Dave join us on Friday and putting up with what I can only imagine was not his A game at the wedding.
We take inventory of our beer situation, realizing that of the two kegs that we “floated” the night before, only about ½-¾ of each were actually consumed. An unspoken understanding went through the group that maybe we couldn’t quite bring it like we used to. That notion, however, would not stop us from trying as Aaron went to restock our supplies.
10:35 AM- We get to the site to find LA Grillers Mike has cleaned out the ashes from our smoker and already put a couple loads of lit charcoal into our firebox, thus saving us at least an hour of cooking time. I could have hugged the guy. Not to go off on a barbecue koombaya rant, but the people at barbecue festivals are just good people. They all look out for one another, even though they’re competing.
11:00 AM- Our hangover shaken off, Adam and I get to work seasoning 9 racks of ribs and four boston butts. Once those are on the smoker, we turn our attention to the whole ducks that we had marinating overnight. We wrap them in bacon and put them on Marr-B-Q’s grill for a little over an hour.
11:15 AM- Adam sears his calf on my lit charcoal chimney. Burning flesh anyone?
12:00 PM- The day of gluttony begins.
The duck came off much better than we expected…while one was a little dry, most of them were really pretty good. I think the duck started what became one of the coolest parts of the weekend…sharing samples with our neighbors.
We started out by taking some duck over to our neighbors on either side.
They returned the favor with chicken.
Then we did smoked sausage with a little sauce on Tim’s Hoe Cakes….you talk about baby-making good.
Then some ribs from next door…
Then our ribs…
Then some smoked wings from our other neighbor….
Then some ribs from our friends at Jimmy Carl’s…
And beer. Lots of beer.
It just doesn’t get much better than that.
6:00 PM- We make our way down to Riverfront Park for the announcement of the winners. I’m not sure if I’d been down there since Dancing in the District back in high school.
6:05 PM- The music stops and the tournament organizers take the stage. Hats off to Frank, Brian and Tom for doing an awesome job with the event.
6:10 PM “And the winner of the Backyard division for ribs goes to….MARR-B-Q!!!
With that announcement our group erupted in the type of noise usually reserved for lottery winners and the victims of panty raids. With proud parents Danny and Pam looking on, Adam and Aaron took the stage to claim their prize. It took about 5 minutes for our crew to shut up. Sorry about that Frank.
Much to the chagrin of some of our competitors, Marr-B-Q made the best ribs of our division on a Weber Grill. Just goes to show you that there’s a lot more to barbecuing than fancy rigs.
There was a writeup of the big win in the Cleveland, TN newspaper (Marr-B-Q’s birthplace). What I like most about the article(which has been taken down) is that most readers won’t know that the sweet ‘stach Aaron is sporting is a joke.
7:00 PM- We pull two shoulders off of the smoker. They had a great flavor but were pretty tough; no doubt a result of my mismanagement of the smoker temp throughout the afternoon. Luckily most folks had pickled their taste buds with some celebratory shots, so the texture wasn’t a big hang up.
Saturday night is the night all of the teams let loose, and at almost every tent there was a party. It was fun to visit the people who had become new friends over the weekend. Everyone was eager to share a beer and a story, and after a few hours it became clear that Sunday morning was really going to suck. Not just your garden variety of sucking…we’re talking early Sunday morning flight home after a bachelor party sucking.
10:30 PM- We pull the final two shoulders off the smoker. They’re just about perfect. Falling apart tender, great smoke ring and very flavorful. Unfortunately we’re all ridiculously full and ready to go out, so we wrap them in foil and leave them on the side of the smoker for a post-bar snack.
10:45 PM- 2 AM- One of those nights where everyone is in a good mood and every place we go is playing a great mix of 80s butt rock and old-school country.
2:30 AM- The last two men standing, Adam and I head back to our tent in eager anticipation of tearing into the shoulders we left.
2:33 AM- The shoulders are gone.
Someone went through everything edible we had, including the nasty duck carcasses that had been sitting out for twelve hours.
We wondered how something like that could happen until we saw the off-duty cop sound asleep in his car at the “security” gate.
While I was pissed at the time, looking back it was probably for the best that Adam and I didn’t have 12 pounds of pork shoulder between the two of us. We’ve been known to overindulge at times, especially when left unattended late at night.
Finale- I’m going to leave off the god-awful cleanup on Sunday, but suffice it to say that after three days of a highly abnormal sleep/alcohol ratio, Sunday was a strong, swift kick in the nannies.
That being said, the weekend was an absolute blast. It’s rare that an event lives up to expectations, but our first bbq competition went above and beyond. If you like bbq and are looking for a good excuse to get your friends together, I highly recommend next year’s Music City BBQ Festival in late August.