In 2009, the Massachusetts barbecue team I Que made headlines as one of the first northeastern teams to be named grand champion at the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue. That event is the Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, Grammys and Tonys of competitive barbecue, all rolled into one extravaganza that takes place each October in Tennessee. I Que’s win caused rejoicing in Vermont, too, since one of the team members is John Delpha, chef-owner of the Belted Cow Bistro in Essex.
Recently, TV shows such as “BBQ Pitmasters” and “Best in Smoke” (on which Delpha appeared) have revealed the byzantine world of competitive barbecue. Before achieving top glories at “the Jack,” teams must qualify for an invitation, which comes from the top governing body of barbecue, the Kansas City Barbeque Society. Vermont teams have just one opportunity to be seen by KCBS judges without traveling out of state: the Harpoon Championships of New England Barbecue in Windsor.
That contest happens this weekend. In preparation, we talked to some of Vermont’s top teams about how they get to the meat of all matters smoky, tender and juicy. Three will compete at Harpoon, along with four other Vermont teams, while another, Sweet Breathe, is taking a break after making its mark out of state this season. Will one of these competitors take the big trophy?
Ever wanted to run away with the carnival? Back in 1994, Pauline Poulin did just that, vending balloons at events across the country. Long after abandoning the call of the road, she keeps moving with her partner, 30-year kitchen veteran David Langhans, as they staff a series of mobile smokers.
For years, Vermont Maple BBQ has parked at Rinker’s Mobil just off I-89’s exit 4. Frequent drivers through Randolph have probably tasted the couple’s ultra-moist, tender ribs, crispy chicken thighs or smoky pulled pork.
Team members: Poulin and Langhans, along with “an entourage” of friends, family and volunteers
Team age: This Harpoon Championship marks the team’s ninth anniversary.
Signature dish: “All of it,” Poulin says, before settling on the ribs that garnered her team a second-place Harpoon trophy in 2011. Langhans argues that his chicken thighs set the team apart.
Number of annual competitions: Just one: Harpoon. The team is too busy selling ’cue to travel to other contests.
What’s in a name?: The team was originally called BBQ for You, which Poulin had to change quickly after seeing it on another team’s license plate. After that, it was simply Vermont BBQ until another company began using that moniker. The team added “maple” in recognition of the ingredient that sweetens its meat.
Biggest triumph: It’s a toss-up between the 2011 second-place trophy for ribs and the 2008 first place for lamb. Poulin says she’s just proud to be invited to Harpoon each year and to have earned a ribbon or trophy each year the team has competed.
Tip for home barbecuers: Find what works for you. Poulin points out that each pit is an individual with its own “personality.” The way to achieve barbecue nirvana is to figure out your pit’s idiosyncrasies by trial and error.
The best part of competing: “Winning the championship,” Langhans says. Poulin disagrees. “For us, we love everybody who loves barbecue,” she says.
These Delaware natives may well be Vermont’s only purveyors of ski-through barbecue. Tump Chiari and Cindy Dilworth sell their chicken, ribs and other specialties on Okemo Mountain in winter; the rest of the year, the couple vends their grub at the Ludlow Country Store.
Team members: Chiari and Dilworth
Team age: The couple has been barbecuing for more than 20 years and has competed for the past three years in nationally sanctioned competitions.
Signature dish: “Kickin’ Chickin,” with the team’s secret rub, which has twice ribboned at Harpoon.
Number of annual competitions: Six to eight
What’s in a name?: The misspelling of “squeals” is intentional, Dilworth says, adopted to match the double ‘e’s in “wheels.” Why “squeals”? The team’s logo is a cartoon pig, which also helped inspire the initials: SOW.
Toughest competition: “They’re all top dogs if you’re at that level,” Dilworth says, and adds that she’s particularly nervous about Hog Heaven BBQ of Brandon.
Biggest triumph: A few second-place trophies have helped encourage the newish team, including one for their pork tenderloin at last year’s Western Maine BBQ Festival.
Biggest misstep: “Not having enough signage,” says Dilworth, who also vends her food at competitions. “We end up looking a little conservative and humble next to people with big signs and banners who glitz themselves up.”
Tip for home barbecuers: Low and slow. “A lot of people want to cook up a rack of ribs in half an hour. You can do that, but they’re not going to be as good,” Dilworth says. “That is, of course, one of the secrets to really barbecuing.”
Chris Sargent and wife Jenn Colby raise pigs at their small East Randolph farm, Howling Wolf Farm, but those porkers don’t go into the ’cue that Howling Hog cooks in competition. “We couldn’t possibly raise that many pigs,” Sargent explains. “You cook two to four butts every time you practice.”
Howling Hog won’t vend its ’cue at Harpoon, but Sargent will still be selling food while he masters meat for the judges: He brings whoopee pies for attendees in flavors including chai and pumpkin.
Team members: Sargent, Colby and friends Rob Hurley and Tara Race
Team age: Nine years
Signature dish: Land-use planner Sargent says he thinks brisket is his greatest asset, but recently his chicken has outclassed it in competition.
Number of annual competitions: Howling Hog will probably do six festivals this summer, in the team’s busiest year yet.
What’s in a name?: Howling Hog matches Sargent and Colby’s farm, Howling Wolf.
Toughest competition: Harpoon isn’t easy for Vermont teams to win; Sargent points out that the last one to do so was Lost Nation Smoke Company, named grand champion in 2003. He’s leaned on teams from other states, such as I Que, to teach him some of the secrets of success.
Biggest triumph: Last month in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, Howling Hog came just 2.4 points from winning the grand championship at Smokin’ at the Ballpark BBQ Festival.
Biggest misstep: In one competition, Sargent accidentally sprayed half of his four trays of ribs with inedible grill cleaner. There was a happy ending: The untainted racks won first place.
Tip for home barbecuers: “It’s just practice, practice, practice,” says Sargent. Also, don’t show off a new skill to friends the first time you try it. Sargent recalls one party that ended with “a lot of people grinning and chewing a lot” after he made an early attempt at brisket.
Not all of Vermont’s top-placing teams will be at Harpoon this year. Eric Gray of Sweet Breathe BBQ was too busy to make it, amid other KCBS competitions and local cooking contests such as the first annual Queen City Chili Cook-Off, where he reigned victorious last winter. This Sunday, he’ll be cooking a special Americana-themed barbecue dinner at Burlington’s North End Studio A.
Gray bears visible evidence of his devotion to his team: The Sweet Breathe logo is tattooed on his leg.
Team members: Pit boss Eric Gray, along with Tony Brown, Chris and Jason Mazur, Bethany Scott and Tawnya Gray
Team age: Three years
Signature dish: The Green Mountain Sausage Fatty. Gray’s unconventional meat roll-up wows judges with its combination of sausage, Cabot cheddar, Vermont Smoke and Cure bacon, apples, onions, maple syrup and sage. It’s won him numerous ribbons in the grilling segment of competitions. At last year’s I Love Barbeque Festival in Lake Placid, N.Y., the same combination of ingredients on a pizza won Gray a grand championship in grilling against Delpha, whose elegant lobster-pesto pie helped him score second place.
Number of annual competitions: About 10
What’s in a name?: Sweet Breathe is actually pronounced “Sweet Breath,” but the extra ‘e’ is not a misspelling. A software project manager at Harmony Information Systems, Gray had a distinctly geeky way of choosing a name. He and a teammate fed the words “We are the best” into an anagram creator, et voilà. It doesn’t help competitors pronounce the name, but the team continues to enjoy the private joke.
Toughest competition: Belted Cow BBQ and Howling Hog BBQ
Biggest triumph: Being named the New England Barbecue Society’s Rookie of the Year in 2010
Biggest misstep: Having a pricey brisket Fed-Exed from Kansas City, only to watch the resulting dish earn second-to-last place. “It tasted good to us,” Gray argues.
Tip for home barbecuers: Take your time and don’t take short cuts. Making everything from scratch and with care will be worth it when you taste your food.
The best part of competing: Seeing the enjoyment on someone’s face when they like your food. At one recent competition in Massachusetts, judges came to Gray asking for more of his cupcake-size maple-bacon cheesecake to bring home to their significant others. “That’s why you do this,” he says. “Just to see people’s reactions.”
Harpoon Championships of New England Barbecue, Saturday, July 27, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Sunday, July 28, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Harpoon Brewery in Windsor. $15. harpoonbrewery.com
The original print version of this article was headlined "Smoke Wars."