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Battle of the basters: Low, slow flavour cook-off set to go

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Master barbecue teacher Jim Johnson explains how to prepare beef brisket.

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Master barbecue teacher Jim Johnson explains how to prepare beef brisket. Photo Store

Flavour will be the name of the game when 30 barbecue chefs from Canada and the U.S. descend upon Shaw Park for the Winnipeg BBQ and Blues Festival.

The low-and-slow barbecue chefs will be competing in four different meat categories, as detailed by the Kansas City Barbeque Society: pork shoulder or butt, pork ribs (either St. Louis or back rib), beef brisket and chicken (any part).

Like the blues part of the festival, barbecue also has its beginnings in the culture of African-American slaves. Festival organizer Perry Hopkins says African-Americans of the 1800s typically had access to only the poorest cuts of meat, and that the low-temperature and slow-cooking method of barbecuing was the most effective way to prepare it.

"It's the best way to break down the connective tissues," Hopkins says.

The style eventually caught on throughout the American south, where it's become a culinary mainstay.

Competitors are allowed only charcoal or wood to fire up their grills.

"In competitive barbecue, (the cooks) attempt to impart a lot more richness into the product," says Hopkins.

First impressions are critical -- judges' stomachs are only so big and can't eat a typically sized serving of barbecued food, Hopkins said.

"By the time they'd be finished, they'd have eaten two or three pounds of meat," Hopkins said

Often, each judge can only allow for a bite or two of the food before making their ratings and moving on to the next competitor's delicious morsel. This style of judging encourages some heart-stopping cooking strategies -- like basting the meat in melted butter before serving, Hopkins says.

"You wouldn't be able to eat much of it," because of its richness, he says.

The competition begins Saturday evening when cooks fire up their grills. The meats are barbecued overnight and the first dishes are turned into judges at noon Sunday. Winners are decided by 5 p.m.

For those who want to bring the techniques home, former U.S. champion Jim Johnson will hold a "low-and-slow barbecue 101" demonstration Saturday at 2 p.m.

Strolling the grounds -- Shaw Park is a new venue for the festival this year -- and chatting with the competitors should also harvest some valuable barbecuing hints, Hopkins said.

One thing you won't get from them are samples of their barbecued meat, though. Health regulations say festival-goers must purchase their food from commercial barbecue vendors on site, Hopkins said.

"That's the biggest complaint. I usually get a half a dozen emails every year about this," he said. "Our inspectors are... let's use 'stringent.' They really follow the rules and regulations. All due respect to them -- they have to follow the regulations."

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2014 C4

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