Hog Wild

Wanting to reconnect with cooking, caterer Tuffy Stone leaped into the weird and wonderful world of competition barbecue. 

“All right, we’re going to wrap ribs,” says George “Tuffy” Stone on a fine April morning in Salisbury, Maryland, at the fifth annual Pork in the Park Bar-B-Que festival and competition, with 84 teams, 10 of them from Virginia. The leader of Cool Smoke, the team that also includes his father, George Stone, and neighbor Kendall Lamp, lifts the lid of his gleaming black and red pit—some call it “the Grillvette”—to reveal four beautiful racks of deep red-brown meat.

One whiff and it’s obvious why Cool Smoke was named 2007’s national Team of the Year by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the 8,000-member sanctioning body for 300 barbeque contests held nationwide. The honor is bestowed annually on the team with the highest cumulative score for the year. Teams compete in chicken, ribs, pork and brisket; each category is scored 2 through 9 in appearance, taste and tenderness/texture. Such an all-around title is no mean feat for the relative newcomers—Cool Smoke’s first competition was in 2004.

Tuffy, 44, wiry and quick to grin, brings the ribs from the pit to the specially constructed, waist-high table in his small motor home. His ingredients are lined up: Parkay squeeze margarine, honey, brown sugar, apple juice, a couple more coded canisters. He sets the first rack on top of several large sheets of aluminum foil and squirts ribbons of yellow Parkay up and down its length, then does the same with honey. He dots on brown sugar, sprinkles with spices and spritzes with apple juice. By the time he’s done, the rack looks like a long, flat cake decorated by an exuberant 5-year-old. Tuffy repeats the procedure on the other side, then wraps the mess into a neat little package and runs it back out to the pit. He hops back in and starts on the next rack.

“I like these,” says Tuffy, happy with the color and texture of the meat.

“Yeah, remember what happened last time you said that,” says Kendall, a wry, mild-mannered CEO of an orthodontic appliance firm.

As Tuffy runs another flat packet out to the pit, his good friend Johnny Trigg passes by, a blue-eyed bear of a man, barbeque legend and the only person to win the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational twice. “What the hell is that?” Johnny growls.

“It’s my chicken.”

“We beat it down with a sledgehammer,” Kendall offers.

Back inside the RV, Tuffy examines the third rack. “Man, they got a nice color.”

Johnny stands outside the doorway. “’Zat Parkay?”

“That’s not Parkay, it’s Bisquick cake batter made to look like Parkay.”

Finally, the fourth rack is wrapped and in the cooker. “These ribs lookin’ good, sir,” Tuffy tells Johnny.

“That’s fine, I’ll take second. But you’ll have to give up that $500.”

The ribbing is all in fun. Johnny—a.k.a. Smokin’ Triggers, of Alvarado, Texas, a 60-something “retired insurance bigwig,” says Tuffy—has his pick-up, pit and tent set up right behind Tuffy’s RV. The pair collaborated last night in the optional Perdue Chicken contest, held in honor of Salisbury native Frank Perdue and offering a $1,000 prize, results to be announced at the final awards ceremony on Saturday. The mentor and the wunderkind hope to split the loot.

Five years ago, Tuffy Stone had no idea competition barbeque existed. A co-owner of the Richmond-based high-end catering company A Sharper Palate, he came to what Saveur magazine recently named its “favorite sport” after a stressful few years that included the 2000 birth of his son, a new house and the travails of shepherding an upscale business through an economic downturn early in the decade. “A Sharper Palate is so fancy,” says the Lynchburg native and longtime Richmond transplant, flattening the word as if it tastes bad. “I needed to reconnect with cooking.”

Few foods are more accessible than barbeque, a perfect foil for his other world of herbed aioli and lemongrass cheesecake. But there was something more intangible at work. Tuffy, an admitted throwback, found himself drawn to the most basic of culinary basics: cooking over a fire. “Back in the Colonial days, the people who could make a cake with a wood-burning oven probably knew more about what I’ve learned than anybody, because to bake a cake—to cook it and not have it taste like smoke!” He lets that marvel speak for itself.

Tuffy bought his first pit in late spring 2004. Cool Smoke entered their first cooking contest in Lynchburg that summer, placed and got hooked. Then came another event in North Carolina. Then eight contests in 2005, 12 in 2006. In 2007, they went to 25 events and won six state championships (including Salisbury). “In 16 months, I drove 40,000 miles,” Tuffy says. “That’s a lot of bug splatter.” He plans on 16 to 18 contests this year.

He’s also working toward the August opening of his next venture, a “barbeque joint” that he’ll call Q. (Given the travel demands of competitive barbeque, Tuffy’s wife, Leslie, has taken on a larger role in Palate.) He envisions a restaurant where folks will be comfortable, “whether you’re a farmer or whether you’re a lawyer”—a contemporary place where there’s good photography on the walls and music “you want to eat barbeque to,” he says. Like what? He laughs. “Everything from Keb’ Mo’ to KC and the Sunshine Band.”

Meantime, he draws energy from the learning process. “I like just pulling my stick burner up and building my fire, and getting that running right, and taking a big old hunk of brisket or pork butt, and coaxing something really good out of it. I like that, you know?” He peers over his glasses and leans forward. “I mean—ribs! Ribs were something I thought I was going to be able to do really easily. Well, I learned so much about ribs. I was a terrible rib cook for a long time.”

What makes a good rib?

“Tenderness is key,” he says. “To get a rib to where it’ll bite cleanly off the bone, not become mealy, still have some texture to it but be really tender, flavor throughout it, to have smoke be a supporting flavor but not an overriding flavor.”

Asked to pinpoint the reasons for his team’s success, Tuffy points to fire management—the team’s very name refers in part to the lower temperatures they use. “A lot of times, people will come up and look at our smoke stack and they won’t see any smoke coming out, and they think we’re not cooking yet, but we are,” Tuffy says, noting that a good fire entails a lot of oxygen as well as wood of particular type and age. He’s partial to hickory.

Pork in the Park is both a competition and a festival, with the festival separated from the competitors’ area by a small pond that divides Salisbury’s Winterplace Park. Vendors offer everything from sand art to personalized signs, intimate apparel, silver jewelry and sunglasses. Two barbeque vendors have set up towering rigs right next to each other. (Tuffy vends at four or five contests, but not this one.) There’s also Thai, smoothies, burgers, lemonade, pizza.

Back at the competitors’ encampment, teams either prepare for tomorrow, when the four main categories will be judged (as well as the whole hog competition, with 13 teams), or for the two contests with Friday evening turn-ins: the Perdue and “Anything Butt”—anything outside the four meat categories. The team sites are arranged along four long aisles, tents and trucks festooned with banners bearing names and slogans: Butch’s Smack Your Lips BBQ, Dirty Dick and the Legless Wonders, Yabba Dabba Q. One that reads, “Spank your meat! Spank it red!” is just steps away from “Smokin’ for Jesus Holy Hogs.” There are pick-up trucks with trailers, there are motor homes, there are multi-million-dollar rigs.

Smokers range from small Weber bullet smokers to big drum smokers to behemoths that could contain entire cows. Fuel is wood, rabbit food-like wood pellets or charcoal. Some are push-button wonders that allow cooks to set a temp and go to sleep. Tuffy’s “stick burner” is a handmade, trailer-mounted pit built in winter 2004-5 by Jamie Geer, a Texas-based barbeque pit artisan who builds only a few each year. Geer’s pits can run upwards of $10,000. Johnny Trigg too has a “Pit by Jambo,” as they are also known.

On Friday evening, Tuffy strolls the grounds. He knows most everyone there. In fact, that’s another bonus that’s come with competition barbeque—the community. He’s changed his cell phone plan six times and now has a 4,000-minute plan. “There’s the BBQ Guru,” he says, pointing at a tent showing the name, but no one is there. The night before, team leader Shotgun Fred Pirkle had a stroke, and Tuffy’s dad was the one to find him. The latest is that Fred is stable.

Farther down the row is one of the Virginia teams: Dizzy Pig BBQ, led by Fairfax native Chris Capell. Chris, in hiking boots and mirrored shades, seasons his brisket, a good-sized bottle of Knob Creek bourbon (not for seasoning) in easy reach. His Big Green Eggs, egg-shaped ceramic cookers in varying sizes, are lined up nearby. For the last five years, the former graphic artist has made a full-time business of selling his line of 10 rubs. “It’s kind of addicting when people really like your food,” he says. “We started competing to see if people were lying to us.” A few wins later, they had their answer.

When Chris’ house burned down in April 2006, the barbeque community rallied around. Steve Farrin, of a Massachusetts-based team named I Smell Smoke, posted a picture of the ruin online “and basically said, ‘Order stuff,’” says Chris. And people did—in droves. Brett Brown, another Virginia ’quer and a sociologist, offered the use of his Arlington basement so Dizzy Pig could continue to mix rubs.

’Quers take care of each other. “Anytime you need something,” says Andy Stoddard, Brett Brown’s teammate, “there’s three people ready to hand it to you.” Andy, an engineer, and Brett are strolling Pork in the Park as well. Both from other teams, they’re here to compete together for the first time under the rather businesslike name Stoddard and Brown. They’ve brought two smokers—Demon Child, Andy’s homemade smoker that, Brett says, only Andy can control the temperature on (“he sort of lays hands on it”) and Brett’s Tall Boy, built by the BBQ Guru. They use Dizzy Pig rubs on their meat.

Further along, Charlottesville native and Pigs on the Run pitmaster John Atkins, a surgical technician at UVA, shows us a trophy he won at a New Jersey contest last September. “Grand Champion and what do I get? An 80-pound pig!”

The day winds down, and Tuffy and Kendall settle into the RV to “build boxes.” Tomorrow, all entries will be submitted in uniform Styrofoam takeout boxes, their only identifying mark a number penned on the bottom. Garnishes are limited to green lettuce, curly or flat parsley or cilantro. A box must hold enough meat for all six judges to have a piece. Cool Smoke’s garnish of choice is curly parsley—they fill the boxes with generous beds of it and refrigerate them overnight.

Under the prep table in the RV sits a rumpled straw cowboy hat, with letters spelling out “Pellet Envy” limping across the band. It belonged to Tuffy’s friend, Tommy Krueger, who helped install the table and sometimes worked competitions. He died last January. And there the hat stays. “So Tommy’s always with us,” says Tuffy.

Plenty of teams carry folks with them who aren’t actually there. Over in Dizzy Pig’s tent, among the camping chairs pulled around the table is a wooden rocking chair, built by Chris Capell’s father starting soon after the former NSA cryptologist learned he had Alzheimer’s. He finished not long before entering full-time care. “There are maybe 30 different kinds of screws in it,” says Chris. Soon after the senior Capell died, Dizzy Pig cooked a contest that ran Saturday to Sunday rather than the usual Friday-Saturday format. “Sunday happened to be Father’s Day. That was the first contest that we won, and we had the chair there, and he was definitely with us.” Still is.

So is Justin Harrison, who died of cancer at age 11 last May. His father, Mark Harrison, is another member of Pigs on the Run. Teammate John Atkins wears a rubber bracelet that reads, “Justin Harrison 2007,” which their friend Mike Casey, of Pennsylvania-based Mason-Dixon BBQ, had made. Painted on the side of Mike’s truck are the words, “In memory of Womp and Justin Harrison.” (Womp was a business partner and friend.) The day Justin died was the day that Mike, who speaks using an electrolarynx, learned he was cancer-free.

Tuffy starts competition Saturdays wearing what he calls his Justin shirt, a plain orange t-shirt. It’s one of his rituals.

Early Saturday morning, a miasma of smoke hangs over the team sites. Tuffy is the most laid-back man on the grounds (his father’s history-making coffee notwithstanding—“Dad doesn’t measure,” he says). Asked how the night was, his first thought is the fire—George, 68, who was up at 2:30 to light the pit and is now sacked out inside, reported to him that this is “the best fire he’s ever run.”

Some of his calm might also owe to his spreadsheet breaking down every task—to the minute. “I brine my chicken at 6 [p.m. on Friday], it comes out at 8, I season my butts at 7, I season my briskets at 7:15, we light our fire at 2:30, the butts go on at 4, the briskets go on at 5 a.m.,” he summarizes. “I mean, it’s like clockwork. Now, when we get closer to turn-in, then I’m real focused.” This will turn out to be an understatement.

Chicken will be turned in for judging at noon, ribs at 12:30, pork at 1 and brisket at 1:30. There is a five-minute window on either side of each deadline—one second outside it means disqualification.

At mid-morning, Tuffy has already taken his traditional walk around the grounds to wish everyone luck. He’s also changed into his lucky red shirt. Singing, “I know who I want to take me home,” he moves the chicken thighs to the top rack, then checks the fire. “Get that table clear, with one disposable cutting board, please.” He is unfailingly polite, no matter how urgent matters become. With black welder-type gloves, he opens the rib packets and pokes the ribs with a toothpick. He turns the chicken. “Looking nice.” He wipes the counter.

“I knowwww who I want to take me home,” he sings again, dashing inside for the thermometer and back out, then jabbing it into the pork butts, one by one. He pauses for a sip of water and says, “They look pretty.”

Then his brow furrows. “I don’t like the smell of that smoke.” A few whisps rise from the stack. “Dad, check the wood—I think it’s smoldering. It’s not breathing right.”

George opens the door of the pit and stands watching. No more smoke from the stack.

Tuffy takes the chicken out and dips the pieces into sauce. “That door still open?” he asks, intent on his work. “Leave it open. Let it breathe.”

Later, George quips, “His nose is so good I sometimes lease him out as a bloodhound.”

At a few minutes to 12, Tuffy’s inside choosing the best-looking chicken thighs for his box. “This one, this one … God, it’s hot in here.”

Finally, after some sprinkling, spritzing and haggling with Kendall as to which pieces should go in front, he has two columns of three gleaming chicken thighs on the parsley. It’s 11:59. He wipes down the edges of the box, then folds it into the “box carrier” that Johnny’s wife Trish made for him. Off to the turn-in.

Seeing Johnny when he returns, Tuffy asks, “How’d they look?”

Johnny shakes his head and rumbles something.

Tuffy stage-whispers, “If he hates his food, look out. He gon’ win.”

Soon he’s back in the RV, working the first rack of ribs on a clean chef’s mat. It’s 12:24. “These don’t feel too bad, but I don’t know if they’re the ones,” he says, and sets them aside. As he slices into the second rack, he purrs, “Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. If that knife didn’t deceive me … that’s so nice. Mm, mm, mm. Damn.” The third set elicits a slightly less exuberant response, but the fourth brings more happy noises. Kendall is the taster, and he agrees with Tuffy.

“Dust?” Tuffy asks. Dust, one of Tuffy’s secret ingredients, is … well, if we tell you, anything could happen.

“Yes,” says Kendall, “but not as liberally as you did the chicken.”

The box is assembled and delivered. Pork gets put together and sent, as well. After all this, Tuffy seems to gain momentum rather than lose it—just in time for brisket, the most challenging category of all. It’s a tough, inexpensive cut of meat, from the shoulder of the cow, and, as Tuffy says, “You have to cook the hell out of it.”

“Look at that,” he says of the wedge-shaped hunk of brisket, its thick point laden with fat and from which he’ll make little melt-in-the-mouth nuggets called burnt ends. “Now I got a woman / She lives across town / She’s good to me,” he sings. “Oh yeah, I like this.” He cuts off the point and cubes it. “Oh, yeah. ‘I got a woman / She’s good to me.’” He seems to know no more than the first line of the Ray Charles song and is gleefully foggy on even that. He adds a secret ingredient to the pan, sauces it, tosses it, then back out it goes into the pit.

Back in the RV, Tuffy slices the flat of the brisket. “Wow! Hot.” He brushes each piece with sauce, does a little dance. “Oh, yeah.” He tells Kendall, “I’m gonna go get the burnt ends while you decide which [cut of brisket] we’re going to turn in.”

When he returns, Tuffy places a few of the burnt ends onto the parsley. Kendall samples some from the pan.

“How’s that?” Tuffy asks him.

“Tastes pretty yummy to me.”

Tuffy does a double take. “He never says ‘yummy.’”

Johnny Trigg strolls by the doorway. “They don’t like the burnt ends down there,” he advises.

Box assembled, box turned in. Tuffy collapses into a camp chair near a table laden with the most sublime—and satisfying—leftovers ever.

“Competition barbeque is not barbeque I want to eat a whole big plate of,” explains Tuffy. “It’s rich. We’re trying to get one great bite. We’re trying to give you one bite to where, when you go to put your score down, you’re going to write a ‘9.’”

Nine. Nine, nine, nine.

The afternoon slows, and people either sit looking stunned or begin packing up, passing the time until the 5 p.m. awards ceremony.

“We all hate awards,” says Tuffy, referring to the ceremony. “We all hate them. Either we’re gonna walk out of here happy, or we’re gonna walk out of here beaten down.”

By 5, the teams are gathered at the mainstage, many in matching team garb. Sandy Fulton, tourism director for Wicomico County and organizer of the contest, mounts the stage and, after some brief opening remarks, gets to the awards quickly, starting with the auxiliary contests. A Virginia team, the Springfield-based Virginia BBQ Pirates, takes the Perdue, which had 68 entrants. Pirate Christy Adams is flustered and happy as she approaches the stage with husband Tom. “Dammit, Tuffy,” grumps Johnny, “we tied for second! Along with 67 others!”

For the four meat categories, the top 10 competitors’ names will be called. Six through 10th places get medals; fifth and better get trophies and prize money, $1,000 for first place. Sandy starts with brisket. Cool Smoke takes 10th. When Tuffy returns to his seat, he leans over and asks Johnny, “That’s the kiss-your-sister award, isn’t it?”

“Naw,” says Johnny. “Sixth is the kiss-your-sister award.”

“Sixth place,” says Sandy, “Smokin’ Triggers.”

The Virginia BBQ Pirates take first in ribs, and Christy looks like she might faint—a reasonable reaction as this is only the Pirates’ third competition.

The BBQ Guru, whose team members returned and cooked once Shotgun Fred stabilized enough to shoo them back, wins the pork category. The applause, generally raucous with goodwill anyway, is loud and long.

Smokin’ Triggers gets called once more, for a second-place finish in chicken—Tuffy’s prediction was almost spot-on.

Cool Smoke never gets called again. Tuffy and Johnny start talking about who’s looking good for Grand Champion and Reserve Grand Champion, first and second overall.

When the moment comes, it’s first-timers (and Virginians) Stoddard and Brown who take the stage to accept the Grand Champion trophy.

Afterward, Andy Stoddard and Brett Brown can’t move, surrounded by back-slapping well-wishers. “Good job, guys,” says Tuffy, smiling.

Dizzy Pig’s Chris Capell, with a sixth in ribs and 15th overall (“I’ll take that!”) is effusive. “Brett, way to go, bud. In this crowd, that’s awesome. Highly awesome.”

“We kind of figured we’d be working the bugs out,” Andy says later. “But there were no bugs.”

“At least they stayed away,” laughs Brett, who later says he was struck by “the absolute joy I saw on people’s faces—directed at me. I haven’t had that happen to me since my wedding. People are really that generous.”

Tuffy’s score sheet reads all 7s to 9s, consistent across the board, which is why he ends up in fifth place overall, even after the absence of his name in the ceremony. Johnny Trigg is right behind Cool Smoke, at sixth. In fact, four of the Virginia teams appear among the overall top 10: Stoddard and Brown, then ACME Brothers (a Northern Virginia crew led by Scott Cocherell) at third, Cool Smoke at fifth and the Virginia BBQ Pirates at seventh.

“Look out, North Carolina,” says Brett Brown. “Virginia’s coming!”

And then all the contestants go home. Or to a hotel—some have long drives to New Jersey, Boston, Tennessee. Or to the next contest, in another state. Tuffy’s got five hours to Richmond ahead of him. Johnny Trigg will win his next competition, the Best Buckin’ Bull BBQ, in Athens, Alabama, the following weekend. A week later, Cool Smoke will win too, and then again the next week, then take 6th in a 220-teamer in Kansas City, then another first, then another—at press time, that’s five grand championships and one reserve so far for 2008.

He might just pull Team of the Year again. Just a few more great bites. And many more miles.

christine ennulat
Virginia Living’s Associate Editor
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