America’s food heritage and its quest for the perfect barbeque

America is known for its food. Or at the very least, its love of food. Food culture in America has changed dramatically in the past few decades. Most of our holidays rely heavily on it as part of the festivities. But what makes our food different than from other cultures from around the world? What kind of food is quintessentially American as apple pie, the cheeseburger and deep-fried…anything? I narrowed it down to one thing, nothing is as American as barbeque or BBQ.

Shootin’ Shootin’ Smoke Competition BBQ team

Its not 100% certain when BBQ originated. Some believe it was brought over by the Spanish as “barbacoa” while others say modern American BBQ originated in the late 1800’s as settlers moved out west. BBQ is NOT putting a slab of meat on a grill and putting some sauce on it… that is a common mis-conception that would make the true BBQ lover cringe at the very thought of that being “BBQ”. It came to be when people wanted to better utilize all of the meat from the animal. This meat in particular was Beef Brisket. Briskett usually being very tough, dry and very hard to cook, but that made it very cheap. Like most Americans, we love cheap.

h^2 BBQ Competition BBQ team

So then came the challenge. How do we make a tough, dry piece of meat into a work of art? A delectable, tasty piece of meat that if cooked correctly would rival that of the best steakhouses in the nation and probably the world. BBQ is made from a slow in-direct heating process usually involving wood, or charcoal. The best way to cook brisket is to give it love and affection. Some of the best BBQ masters cook a slap of brisket for a minimum of 7 hours and then let it “relax” off of the heat for 2-3 hours so that it can soak up all of the juices, fats and flavors you used to cook it in.

St. Louis Black Iron BBQ Competition team.

Since the late 1800’s it has evolved tremendously and everywhere you go across the United States, each kind of Barbeque restaurant has their own take on how to mix spices and sauces to make the best flavor your taste buds desire. The most famous of the BBQ styles would be from Texas, Tennessee, Kansas City and North Carolina. Each would say their style and flavor is superior to the next, I’ll be honest and say they’re all amazing. BBQ has become such a staple in American culture that just in the last 30 years, BBQ cook-offs or festivals have been a weekly event across the nation. Where BBQ experts and hobbyists alike come together and literally compete with each other who has the best BBQ.

Smokin’ in the Ozarks Competition BBQ team

Since I live in the middle of Missouri, it was easy for me to experience one more style more than the rest, Kansas Citystyle BBQ. This past weekend, July 22 2016, I had the experience of attending one of these BBQ cook-offs. The Smokin’ in the woods BBQ competition. I could probably write a novel from the amount of BBQ knowledge I gained from attending this competition. But don’t worry, I’ll do my best to condense the material so everyone can digest it. I had the pleasure of meeting Chris Wolters, the organizer for the event and he really was able to shed some light on what BBQ meant to American Culture.

Mitchell Phelps – What got you started in BBQ and made you want to organize this BBQ festival?

Chris Wolters – I liked to cook.  My kids really liked my cooking and they would sometimes like to give me “chopped challenges” and bring me strange ingredients and have me make dinner out of them.  I also found it “entertaining” to make my kids eat their vegetables by disguising them in ways that they really liked without them knowing they were there. As for the BBQ contests, I knew about them and I thought to myself… “what do you do on weekends.. drink beer and BBQ!!!  Why not do it with several of your friends in a competition?”.  That’s what made me start competing. I never even thought about being a BBQ organizer though.   A few years back, I was competing in the Elks Lodge contest here in Columbia Missouri.  I was adopted when I was 5 days old and I had just found my birth family and was going to be talking to my baby sister the Friday night of that contest for the first time.  I talked to her that night and headed up to meet them on Memorial day.  I found out that they liked to camp and it would be great to get a camper to go up there and visit them.  It would be something we could do as a family.  It was also a good investments for doing contests as well. I decided to start close to home (in case something didn’t go right) so I went to the Hanson Hills campground.  While I was there, I met Sterling Albright; the owner of the campground.  We got to talking and I mentioned testing out the camper close to home.  I had also mentioned how great it would be to use the camper for BBQ contests.  Until then, I had used a few EZ Up tents and slept outside during these weekend long contests. This would make it a lot more comfortable. He mentioned to me that he would love to have a contest at his campground.  Earlier this year we decided on a date to put it on and I ended up organizing it.

Mitchell Phelps– What do you think BBQ means to the regular person?

Chris Wolters – I think most people confuse BBQ with “grilling”.  Putting some burgers on the grill is not BBQ… its “grilling”.  BBQ is an art form that involves a lot of steps that most people think “why are you going to all of that trouble??”.  That is.. until they taste what real BBQ tastes like from real competitive BBQrs.  There is nothing like it.  It is not like anything you can find at any restaurant that I’ve ever been to.  Being a BBQ competitor and Certified BBQ Judge as well.. I can tell you that I’ve never tasted anything as amazing as competition BBQ before at any BBQ restaurant.  Even when going to a restaurant that is owned by an individual or company that has done competition  BBQ,  it is just not the same.  The attention to detail and level of expertise when it comes to a competition is significant.

Mitchell Phelps – Would you say BBQ is a part of American culture and heritage? How and why?

Chris Wolters– Yes I would.  When you look at all other forms of cooking or food preparation; you can trace it back to other (mostly European) cuisine.  BBQ is the only truly American Cuisine. You have Korean BBQ that features thin slices of beef or pork cooked and served with rice.  Argentina has “Asado” or marinade free meat cooked in a smokeless pit.  There is also Mongolian BBQ which is neither of Mongolian origin or BBQ but rather a stir fry from Taiwan.  However True BBQ is distinctly American.

Mitchell Phelps – In your experience how do you think BBQ has grown/evolved in the past 50-100 years?

Chris Wolters – Hmm… not sure 😉

Mitchell Phelps – What are the different kind of BBQ techniques and how does it affect the flavor of the meats?

Chris Wolters – There are so many techniques (Hot and fast, low and slow, wrapping vs. unwrapped, hanging vertically vs. setting on grill grates, basting, mopping, marinating, wet vs dry, etc..) to achieve different results.  What I can say is that each of the different techniques attempt to handle the following situations:

  • Properly seasoning the meat.. inside and out.  This is typically done by dry rubbing the meat for several minutes (for smaller cuts) to several hours (for bigger cuts) so that the salt and seasoning gets into the meat.   For things like Brisket and Pork Butt, many also choose to inject the thicker parts using a syringe or brining pump with a liquid brine or marinade.
  • Ensuring that during the cooking process that the meat is juicy and does not dry out.  This is done by choosing cuts of meat that are “Prime” or “Wagyu” that have significant marbling.  Leaving a layer of fat and seasoning on the meat or cutting the fat off, mixing it with seasoning and hanging it in a basket above the meat so that the melting fat bastes the meat as it cooks.
  • Mixing different woods.  Different woods give different flavors.  Peach, Apple, Cherry, Sugar Maple, and Pecan impart mild flavors, whereas Hickory, Oak, and Mesquite impart stronger flavor.  Each wood imparts a certain level of bitterness which is the reason why rubs and bastes often contain sugar or honey to provide balance to this.

I just wanted to say thank you Chris for the interview and bringing some first hand knowledge of BBQ The Kansas City BBQ Society (KCBS) is the largest BBQ society in the world and holds not only national but international competitions relating to BBQ. Many KCBS judges as well as the competitors themselves were also able to answer my questions I had on BBQ. One thing is for sure, Everyone here loved to talk about BBQ. Some are a little more hesitant on revealing their secrets of the best tasting brisket or ribs but others were happy to explain to me how to make the best BBQ in the world. One thing is certain, it is a science. That is something I can relate to. I understand science, its tangible, quantifiable and replicable. I would say the whole process is 80% science 15% gut feeling and 5% luck. As for the competition side, I’m sure the competitors would say it’s the complete opposite. You cook a slab of meat 10 minutes too long and it becomes dry, cook it 10 minutes too short and it might not be hot enough or not cooked all the way. If you don’t use the proper fats to soak in the beef or buy meat from the wrong supplier it could all go terribly wrong and would cost you the competition. If the wind blows at 10mph for too long at a certain angle… it could spell disaster for the cooked meats. It’s a meticulous process. Each team goes through to pick the best meats to present to the judges. Its as much about trial and error as it is knowledge of meat and what the human taste buds crave.

St. Louis Black Iron BBQ Competition team meticulously picking out their best piece of brisket.

Competition aside, events like this really brings people together. My time I spent at the cook-off I saw families and people come together to talk about BBQ and make new friends and to exchange ideas. I come walking in with my NASA t-shirt and ask all these questions about BBQ and what it means to them and they would go and tell me anything I want to know. It was quite an amazing experience. In the end, this was a competition and its all about taste and presentation. There is a timeline that each competitor had to adhere to and you submitted each of your meats at a certain time to be judged in a group of 6 people and scored according to the KCBS regulations. Talk about having the best job in the world, eating the best BBQ in the entire world. There was extra after each of the submissions and man…. I think I was in heaven. I don’t think I could ever go to a normal BBQ restaurant again and appreciate that BBQ the same way.

The Judging during the competition.

In the end, I left a little more knowledgeable about the culture that is now American BBQ. It wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t realize that the food has come such a long way that it is now essentially a sporting event of food for people around the world. BBQ is literally a part of almost every American holiday. It’s a time where families , friends and neighbors, come together to enjoy the great outdoors, crack open a beer and talk about life. Heck, its been a part of my life every year and I didn’t even realize it until I started writing this article. BBQ is truly the quintessential American cuisine that has been engrained into our heritage in more ways than one.

Junkyard Hog Competition BBQ team

To all the competitors that I talked to and I probably annoyed with all my questions thank you for your patience. I also want to thank you for introducing me to an important aspect of the American culture I will now appreciate more each and every time I have BBQ.

Had to get a picture next to the Grand Champions of the competition. The St. Louis Black Iron BBQ Competition team

Author and pictures by Mitchell Phelps.




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