At 8 a.m. Saturday, Mark Zonfrillo, an ER pediatrician from Mount Airy, watched closely as his brother Paul slid a thermometer into the beef brisket. "Looks good," Paul announced, nodding.
Sleep-deprived but determined, the brothers and their families - also known as team ZBQ - had worked through the rain and tornado warnings the night before, smoking, basting, and pampering their barbecue entries.
By morning, the sky was clear and two 8-pound pork butts were already wrapped and resting in the cooler. The chicken was marinating on ice. Six racks of ribs were still smoking.
Plumes of barbecue smoke and equally tenuous hopes for a pig-topped trophy hovered above the patchwork of tents and smokers at the second annual Smoke in the Valley BBQ Cook-Off Competition in Green Lane, near Lansdale, on May 15, as 49 teams from across the country readied their barbecue contenders.
This competition, a fundraiser for the Green Lane volunteer fire company, is one of 300 across the country, an increase from fewer than 60 ten years ago sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, the most influential governing body of competitive barbecue, which provides trained judges and criteria.
The Zonfrillo team, among the ever-growing number of amateurs bitten by the competitive barbecue bug, arrived at Isaac Smith Park at noon on Friday - Paul Zonfrillo, his wife, Ann, and daughter Maria, 13, drove down from their home in Narragansett, R.I., smoker and tents in a U-Haul. Mark and Nancy Zonfrillo and infant daughter Ella traveled from Mount Airy. The team spent Friday setting up the tents, prepping the food, and starting the meats in the smoker - then sleeping in three-hour shifts so someone could watch the smoker all night.
A look beyond ZBQ's relatively humble setup revealed RVs airbrushed with dancing pigs, inflatable gnomes, high-end custom smoking rigs, stereo systems blaring country music, sponsorships from charcoal companies.
The scrappiest award would have to go to the hometown team Flavor File, whose members constructed their own smokers out of office filing cabinets. "We saw something on YouTube that gave us the idea," said Rob Carpenter, who salvaged the cabinets from an office fire. "It probably took us about six months to come up with a prototype." This was their first competition.
ZBQ, on the other hand, has been on the BBQ contest circuit for four years, and taken home a few awards, which they proudly display. But mostly they consider their entry in 10 or so competitions each season a hobby.
"We're really an 'Any Given Sunday' kind of team," said Mark, whose brother Paul bought him a smoker as a wedding gift. It all began with beer-can chicken in the backyard and grew from there, he explained. "A lot of these people go to every competition and win every time. We just do this to spend time together."
His daughter Maria thinks reality TV has inspired more competitors: "I think these events are becoming more competitive because more people are watching TLC's Pitmasters." She and her brother Nick, 18, placed third in a Junior World Barbecue Championship last year in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Around 9:30 a.m., the park hit a lull, as teams settled into lounge chairs, toasting with beers and Bloody Marys. Turn-in wasn't for another couple of hours; it was a matter of waiting for the meat to finish cooking.
Turn-in times, as dictated by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, are strict: noon for chicken; 12:30 p.m for ribs; 1 p.m. for pulled pork, 1:30 p.m. for brisket. Fall beyond a few minutes and a team will be disqualified. Presentation is just as seriously prescribed: Garnishes are limited to parsley, cilantro, and certain types of lettuce (red-leaf is verboten); "sculpturing" meat is a no-no.
Asked whether the judging is subjective, judge Jim Ruben, a barbecue pitmaster himself, said, "It is and it isn't. Every human being has their likes and dislikes. But what's neat about the Kansas City Barbecue Society is that the judging is always blind. ... These folks are just good down-to-earth people."
"The stuff you see on TV is usually scripted."
By 11 a.m., people with T-shirt slogans like "You Don't Need Teef to Eat Our Beef" were back on their feet, spritzing meat with apple juice, taking temperatures, crimping foil.
Activity in the ZBQ tent began to heat up. The ribs went in for a second glazing. The chicken thighs came out of the smoker and were dredged in sauce. The smell of vinegar wafted through the tent. The wind picked up, blowing plates and bottles off the table.
"This can be more stressful than my job at times," said Mark. "In the emergency room, I know what I'm doing. I don't always know what I'm doing here," he admitted.
This next hour, Paul said, is make-or-break time. All of the team's work can be endangered by a few extra minutes in the smoker, or poor foil wrapping, or - "We forgot the brown sugar on the ribs," Paul announced gravely.
"It'll be OK," Ann said. "We'll add a little extra at the end."
At 11:50 a.m., competitors began the mad dash across the park's green, across the street, and up the stairs to the second floor of the firehouse to deliver their first foam presentation boxes to the judges. Mark timed the trip earlier (31/2 minutes).
In the firehouse bingo hall, shielded from contestants, eight tables of judges awaited their portions. They inspected and ate in silence, occasionally licking a finger. They recorded scores (from 2 to 9 for appearance, taste, and tenderness).
Back at the tent, ribs were lined up for inspection. Pink smoke ring: check. Retraction from the bone: check. No surface irregularities: check. The team debated the best-looking rack, with Mark making the final call. The ribs were sliced evenly and set on the bias in their box for delivery.
At 12:39 p.m., Paul sat, announcing he had a headache. Ann handed him a coffee and he downed it. There was no time: The pork was calling. Pulling the shoulder meat is a laborious, two-person job, but it looked moist and, after an additional sprinkling of salt and spice, Paul was satisfied with the flavor overall. At 12:55 p.m., it was sent off.
Just when the team should have been feeling relief hitting the home stretch, ZBQ hit a snag with their final round. Mark sliced the flat cut brisket and clinically observed that it was looking dry. The team strategized and decided to turn in the point cut instead, in a combination of burnt-end chunks and chopped meat, moistened with au jus.
"A few years ago, we wouldn't have thought to do this," Paul said. "But it's completely fine to just turn in the point if that's the better cut."
The final box was delivered with an exhausted cheer. Mark doled out plates of barbecue and his wife Nancy's mayo-less slaw to friends and guests; some team members retired for showers and naps.
At 5 p.m., the team reconvened at a pavilion to hear the results. They were late and stood at the back, so it was almost impossible to hear.
The announcer started calling out winners, starting with 10th place, for chicken. Cheers and polite clapping followed each. With no recognition for chicken, brisket, or pork, it started to look pretty hopeless for ZBQ, as the ribs category approached.
"49 teams," Mark said. "It's the biggest competition we've ever faced."
His wife, holding baby Ella, smiled sympathetically.
Cruzen-2-Q was called up for a prize. Then Lo'-N-Slo'. Fire & Spice. The announcer continued.
"First place: Ribs. ZBQ."
Paul, Maria, and Ann looked at one another in disbelief, then screamed. Mark joined them as they sprinted to the front for handshakes and photos.
They returned with a trophy and a check for $300. Their rib score was 177.714; 180 is considered perfect.
"I can't believe it," Maria said.
"I'm shocked!" said Mark.
Paul just smiled and raised the trophy so the golden pig glinted in the sun.
Makes 1 scant cup or about 35 servings
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon coriander
1 tablespoon ancho chili powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon cayenne (adjust to taste)
1. Mix and thoroughly combine ingredients. If clumps are present, sift through a mesh strainer.
2. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to 3 months.
Makes 1 quart or about 35 servings
1/4 cup canola oil
4 garlic cloves, minced or grated
1 yellow onion, minced or grated
1 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
2 tablespoons ancho chili powder
1 tablespoon dry mustard
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (adjust to taste)
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 cups ketchup
1/4 cup yellow mustard
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1. In a saucepan over medium heat, heat oil and add onion and garlic. Stir and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add dry ingredients and cook for 2 minutes. Add remaining wet ingredients. Bring to a boil and stir to mix well.
2. Turn the heat down to simmer and stir frequently until thickened (about 30 to 35 minutes). Add additional salt, brown sugar, and vinegar to taste. Cover and cool to room temperature. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
Per serving: 52 calories, trace protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 2 grams fat, no cholesterol, 302 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 8 to 10 servings
Two 3½-pound chickens
Two 12-ounce cans of beer (non-diet soda or juice will also work)
Woodchips for smoking (a mild fruitwood such as cherry or apple)
Disposable aluminum drip pan
1. Rinse chickens and pat dry. Let chickens sit at room temperature while you prepare grill and woodchips.
2. Soak 6 to 8 three-inch woodchips in water for 30 minutes (beer, non-diet soda, wine, or fruit juice can also be used). If using a charcoal grill, place chips on top of glowing coals. If using a gas grill, place chips in a foil pouch and poke holes in the top so smoke can escape, then set pouch on a grate over an active burner.
3. Set up the grill for indirect heat, with either charcoal on one side or, for a gas grill, the center burners off and the peripheral burners on high. The grill should be between 225 and 275 F.
4. Open the aluminum cans, and dispose of (i.e., consume) approximately the first two ounces of the liquid. Use a churchkey can opener to make two more holes in the top of the can.
5. Using your fingers, carefully loosen the skin on chicken thighs and breasts. Apply rub over the skin, under the skin, and in the body cavity.
6. Lower the chicken onto the aluminum can over a drip pan so the can rests in the body cavity. Pull the legs forward until the bird stands upright. Tuck the wing tips behind the bird's back. Repeat with the other chicken. Carefully position the drip pan with the positioned beer-can chicken on the grate, and cover the grill.
7. Cook approximately 75 to 90 minutes, until the skin is dark golden brown and the thickest part of the thigh registers at least 170 to 180 degrees.
8. Take the chicken and drip pan off the grill and rest for 10 minutes. Carefully remove the can, carve chicken, and serve with sauce on the side.
Per serving (based on 10): 345 calories, 32 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, 126 milligrams cholesterol, 338 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 4 servings
3-pound pork butt (shoulder), bone-in or boneless, and trimmed of excess fat
1. Rinse and thoroughly dry the pork butt. Liberally coat pork with rub. Let pork sit at room temperature while you prepare the wood chips and grill based on the instructions in the Beer Can Chicken recipe.
2. Place pork on the grill over indirect heat for 1 hour.
3. Set an electric slow cooker to a low setting, or preheat oven to 225 degrees.
4. If using an oven, place pork in a large Dutch oven or roasting pan with a tight lid, and cook for 3 to 4 hours or until the internal temperature is at least 200. Remove and let it rest, covered, for at least 30 minutes before serving. (Check the temperature in several places, as it will be hotter near the bone.) If using a slow cooker, cut the meat into 2 or 3 pieces so it fits in the pot. Cook on a low setting for 6 to 7 hours, or until tender. Turn slow cooker off, and let meat rest for 30 minutes before serving.
5. The pork should be falling apart. Remove any excess chunks of fat. Carefully pull meat using your fingers or two forks. Season to taste with salt and pepper and add sauce to taste.
Per serving: 571 calories, 41 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 43 grams fat, 134 milligrams cholesterol, 362 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 8 servings
For the slaw:
3 pounds green cabbage, cored and finely shredded
1 1/2 pounds red cabbage, cored and finely shredded
1/4 cup sugar
1 large carrot, coarsely shredded
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch matchstick
1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
For the dressing:
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon celery seeds
1/2 cup water
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1/3 cup minced red onion
2 garlic cloves, grated on a microplane grater
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus additional as needed
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus additional as needed
1/2 teaspoon finely ground fresh black pepper, plus additional as needed
1. Place the green and red cabbage in a large bowl and toss with the sugar.
2. Place the caraway and celery seeds in a small dry skillet over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Remove from the heat, pour in the water, and let cool completely. Combine remaining dressing ingredients in a blender or in a bowl using an immersion blender. Pour in the seeds and their liquid and blend until smooth.
3. In a large bowl, toss to combine the carrot, apple, and parsley with the cabbage. Pour in the dressing gradually, tossing to combine; you may not need all of the dressing. Season to taste with additional salt, cayenne, and black pepper.