My husband, Jeff, was once talking to a friend from Kansas about barbecue. Jeff mentioned that he sometimes gets out the charcoal, fires up the Weber, and cooks some steaks.
"That's not barbecue, Jeff," the Kansan friend said, with a kind of gentle forbearance. "That's grilling."
Here in Canada, barbecue is a pretty broad designation, covering anything that involves outdoor cooking and slabs of meat. In the southern United States, it's a whole other thing, a mix of science, religion and complex subculture. Oh, and it tastes good, too. That's what this weekend's Winnipeg BBQ and Blues Festival aims to demonstrate.
Perry Hopkins, one of the festival organizers, has helped popularize southern-style barbecue here in Manitoba. In 2007 Hopkins organized a barbecue competition for the Morden Corn and Apple Festival. As with so many things food-related, it started with the Food Network. "I saw a competition on there and thought, this is something we need to do," Hopkins explains.
For the sixth year of the growing festival, Hopkins has brought the action to Winnipeg and an expanded venue at the Red River Exhibition grounds. And the food will team up with blues music, with performances by Texas bluesman Jimmie Vaughan and local artists like Big Dave McLean and Romi Mayes. "That seemed like a really natural connection," says Hopkins.
To get a preview of the food that will be showcased this weekend, I went out to Stonewall to meet one of the Manitoba competitors, the folks at Tailgators BBQ Pit. Trish Cooper runs Tailgators with her husband, Mike Cooper, and she was keeping an eye on racks of red-bronzed meat. Lynn Hepner, who works on the Tailgators' crew, had whipped up some side dishes.
The foundation of southern-style barbecue is the equipment. To get the characteristic balance of heat and smoke, you need a smoker oven, sometimes called a pit. In this method, the heat source, along with smoke-producing wood, is placed in one chamber, with the food placed in another connected chamber. Cooking relies on indirect heat and gets a lot of deep, subtle, complex flavour from the smoking process.
Tailgators BBQ Pit caters everything from small family parties to big crowds, and right now Trish Cooper is using something called a Jambo Pit. Designed by Food Network BBQ Pitmaster Jamie Geer, a small backyard model will run about $2,000 and a tricked-out competition version can go for upwards of $15,000. Cooper also points out their big ol' red outfit -- an Oyler Barbecue Pit that can hold almost 1,000 pounds of meat, or even an entire pig. (When serious barbecue people talk about "the whole hog," they mean exactly that.)
Southern-style barbecue favours not deluxe steaks but cheap cuts of meat, Hopkins explains, like beef brisket and pork butt (which is actually pork shoulder). Grilling tends to be hot and fast, but barbecue is "low and slow," which helps to break down tough cuts, leaving them meltingly tender.
The Coopers, who've been in the barbecue business since 2009, have studied the art and science of barbecue with celebrity chef Myron Mixon, the self-proclaimed "winningest man in BBQ" in Unadilla, Georgia. Along with their catering business, the Coopers have competed on the extensive, super-competitive North American barbecue circuit. Mike Cooper even went with a winning Canadian team to "The Jack," the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg, TN, which is the big show of barbecue. "That's huge," says Trish Cooper. "People will compete all their lives and never have an opportunity to make it to The Jack."
This weekend's Winnipeg contest will be overseen by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the biggest sanctioning body in the barbecue world. "There are hundreds of competitions in the United States and Canada, says Hopkins. "The majority of them are in every little town in the southern states, but there are probably about 20 competitions up in Canada now."
A competitor who's finishing well in the four main categories -- brisket, pork, ribs and chicken -- can make a few thousand dollars in a weekend. This weekend, the total purse will be $10,000. The KCBS uses a double-blind system to judge, scoring on presentation, taste and tenderness.
Taste is layered in southern barbecue, usually starting with a dry spice rub, and sometimes an injection -- marinade shot directly into the meat with a syringe. There's the wood used for smoking -- apple, cherry and plum trees give a sweet mild effect, while the smoke from oak is stronger tasting. And then there's the sauce, which is added only at the end, and can vary from peppery and vinegar-sharp to sweet and thick.
When we start digging in to our loaded-up plates, Trish Cooper shows me two sauces. "This is the base," she says, pointing to one. "And this is the one I can't tell you about," she says, pointing to a darker sauce, which begins with the base but then adds a few top-secret ingredients. The special sauce is one of Tailgators' closely guarded mysteries, and everyone in the barbecue business has some. "Even where we went to school, they wouldn't divulge everything," says Trish Cooper.
So clearly, Cooper is going to hold on to some of Tailgators' secrets. But she's given us enough to get started. You'll get some of that good barbecue flavour even if you're using a conventional indoor oven -- but it might not be as much fun.
Tailgators BBQ rub
250 ml (1 cup) cane sugar
75 ml (1/3 cup) kosher salt
30 ml (1/8 cup) chilli powder
15 ml (1 tbsp) coarse black pepper
5 ml (1 tsp) garlic powder
5 ml (1 tsp) onion powder
30 ml (2 tbsp) fresh ground coffee
Put all ingredients in a large bag and shake until blended.
Taster's notes: Love the idea of waking up the spices with coffee.
Tailgators apple and blackberry BBQ sauce
250 ml (1 cup) blackberry preserves
500 ml (2 cups) ketchup
60 ml (1/4 cup) brown sugar
60 ml (1/4 cup) apple juice
60 ml (1/4 cup) cider vinegar
2 ml (1/2 tsp) fine sea salt
2 ml (1/2 tsp) ground black pepper
In a small pot, whisk together all ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 15-20 minutes.
Taster's notes: Everyone has his or her take on barbecue sauce. This sweet and mild sauce is pretty darn good -- though not quite as good as the Coopers' super-secret sauce, which has some other subtle, indefinable thing going on.
Tailgators award-winning chicken
1 kg (2.2 lbs) small to medium chicken thighs, with bone and skin
1L (4 1/2 cups) water
250 ml (1 cup) brown sugar
3 garlic cloves, crushed
Mix together water, brown sugar and garlic. Pour over chicken pieces and marinate overnight in the fridge. Preheat a smoker-oven to 120C (250F), massage drained chicken pieces generously with Tailgators spice rub, and cook for 45-60 minutes. Sauce chicken with Tailgators BBQ sauce and return to smoker for about 10 more minutes. Internal temperature should reach 77C (170F). (For a conventional oven, bake on a rack over a roasting pan or lipped cookie sheet in a 140C (275F) oven for about 40-45 minutes. Be sure that internal temperature reaches 77 C or 170F.)
Taster's notes: Wow! The Tailgators version, made in their Jambo Pit, was really tender with a crisped skin, and married all sorts of complex flavours from the marinade, the rub, the wood smoke and the sauce. Remember: You should only sauce when the chicken is close to done, so check first with a meat thermometer. If you cook the meat too long with the sauce, the high sugar content will burn.
The meat gets the glory in southern barbecue, but traditional sides like baked beans, slaw and corn bread are also delicious. This broccoli slaw was made by Lynn Hepner, part of the Tailgator prep team.
Apple cranberry broccoli slaw
500 ml (2 cups) red apple, cored and cubed
750 ml (3 cups) shredded broccoli
250 ml (1 cup) thinly cut celery
125 ml (1/2 cup) diced red onion
125 ml (1/2 cup) shredded red cabbage
60 ml (1/4 cup) shredded carrot
60 ml (1/4 cup) dried cranberries
60 ml (1/4 cup) sunflower seeds
125 ml (1/2 cup) sour cream
60 ml (1/4 cup) mayonnaise
5 ml (1 tsp) celery seed
2 ml (1/2 tsp) fresh ground pepper
2 ml (1/2 tsp) celery salt
In a large bowl, combine slaw ingredients and set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together dressing ingredients. Pour over the slaw and blend well. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours. Keep cold. Serves 8-10.
Taster's notes: A nice crunchy slaw, and the dried cranberries and sunflower seeds are a good touch.