Competition adds a new flavor to almost any aspect of life, bringing with it a higher sense of purpose and pride in one’s work. The smoky, delicious world of barbecue is not immune to such forces; family get-togethers become testing grounds for new recipes and sauces are repetitiously remade to ensure perfection.
Just ask Larry Stammen, a member of the four-person team representing Don K Chevrolet in the upcoming Stumptown BBQ Smoke Off, sizzling in Whitefish’s Depot Park on July 24-25.
“I’ve done a lot of reading, I’ve done a lot of Internet searching,” Stammen said. “I’ve been barbecuing for two months, every weekend.”
Even something as routine as a grilling up a tender, barbecue chicken becomes a painstaking art. Stammen noted that the first time he barbecued with a competition mindset, “I thought it was horrible for the work I put in it.”
Lessons learned, the next try was decidedly better, Stammen added.
Stammen is new to the world of competitive barbecue, which is also a relatively novel endeavor in Whitefish. But elsewhere, especially in the barbecue bastion of the South, the contests are well-worn traditions.
Whitefish’s inaugural competition was born from both local and southern, namely Texan, influences. The event is sponsored by Piggyback Barbeque restaurant in Whitefish, which recently came under new ownership in April.
Former owner Clay Nelson sold his business to Buzz and Missy Laughlin, and Missy’s son, Reeves Stanwood. While shadowing Nelson to learn the ins and outs of Piggyback Barbeque, Stanwood said the two got to chatting about different aspects of the barbecue business and the curious lack of contests in Whitefish.
“Being from Texas, it seems like everybody and their mother down there had a different event involving barbecue,” Stanwood said.
The saucy competitions have also earned a bit of the national limelight and become more accessible to those not born in the culture of the smoke ring, Stanwood noted, with shows such as “BBQ Pitmasters” on TLC.
Stanwood has been in the business for years; he started as a busboy at a barbecue joint in Houston at 15. He keeps coming back to it, and now manages the restaurant in Whitefish.
While grilling in the summertime often conjures images of slow, lazy days, the competitors at these events are quite serious, Stanwood said, guarding their ever-evolving recipes.
“They try out different recipes at different events. They never really use the same recipe,” Stanwood said. “They’re always tweaking and modifying, whether it’s a rub or a sauce.”
The Laughlins expect at least 10 teams for the Stumptown BBQ Smoke Off, and maybe a few late entries as the weekend approaches. So far, entries include local teams, as well as those from Canada, Oregon and Tennessee.
It will be a two-day event, structured to run overnight for maximum cooking and smoking times. Teams can enter fare in several categories, including brisket, chicken, pork butt and ribs. There will be awards for the best in each category, as well as an overall award for those competing in all groups.
In all, there is a total of $5,000 in prize money up for grabs.
A panel of judges will inspect the meat prior to cooking and will blindly taste test each entry so as not to be swayed by the griller’s identity.
And since the Pacific Northwest BBQ Association has sanctioned the event, any points earned by the winners go toward their quest to be in bigger competitions, Buzz Laughlin said.
Anyone coming to watch the grilling magic happen will be entertained by seven local bands, he added, plus a hog-calling competition and a Miss Piggy contest.
Some competitors may sell their barbecue to the public and others will cook solely for the judges, Laughlin said, but there will be vendors and a beer garden available for the crowd.
The grilling begins Saturday morning at 10 a.m. and will go through the night. Activities finish up on Sunday at 8 p.m. A portion of the proceeds from the event will go toward funding the North Valley Food Bank.
“It’s a whole lot of work, but it should be an interesting thing,” Laughlin said. “You see professionals and amateurs all doing their thing.”
Stammen and the rest of the Don K team – Travis Squires, Jack Burns, and John Simpson – will take shifts watching their two smokers overnight, sleeping in a borrowed RV.
With the sauces and rubs already made and a homemade South African sausage called boerewors set to thrill the judges, Stammen and his crew think they are ready to step into the world of competitive barbecue.
“We’ve never done this before,” Stammen said. “We’re just going to have fun.”
For more information on the Stumptown BBQ Smoke Off, visit www.stumptownbbqsmokeoff.com or call Piggyback Barbeque at 863-9895.