People who love barbecue really love barbecue, and will go to great lengths to find the perfect ribs. I’m one of those, so I was thrilled to be invited to judge The Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off in Sparks, Nevada.
For die-hard barbecue lovers and novices alike, this kind of cook-off is a slice of pork heaven.
Instead of driving around the country to sample regional styles of barbecue, all I had to do was take a three-block stroll down Victorian Avenue in front of the Nugget for some of the best ribs in the country.
Pit masters competed from all over the country, cooking up slab after slab of pork ribs in pick up-sized smokers and finishing them off on 10-foot-long wood-fired grills. Some hailed from legendary barbecue states like Texas, South Carolina, and Kansas. But many, many others came from states that folks rarely associate with this style of cooking—we’re talking all the way from California to Minnesota, Pennsylvania and, yes, even New Jersey.
Nugget owner John Ascuaga and his kids, Michonne and Stephen, launched first Cook-Off back in 1989. Not knowing what to expect, the event wound up featuring six cookers and a small gathering of customers.
Joey Sutphen, owner of the formidable Texas Thunder cook-off team and one of the original six contestants, recalls the low-key inaugural event. He and the other contestants didn’t even have smokers or grills—just Sterno cans to warm up the ribs.
But within a few years, word spread. This year, over six days, more than 500,000 people (yes, five hundred thousand) came to the Nugget and ate an astonishing 100,000 pounds of ribs. Only the top 24 cookers from around the country are invited to compete for the People’s Award and the jury prizes for Best Ribs and Best Barbecue Sauce.
Don’t worry if ribs aren’t your thing, as there’s plenty more to eat: pulled pork, barbecue turkey legs, chicken, grilled corn on the cob, hot pretzels, deep-fried potato chips, onion rings, fried zucchini, funnel cakes, cotton candy, shaved ices, and chocolate-dipped frozen fruit on a stick. (Don’t think about the cholesterol. Just don’t.)
I spent three days of gorging myself on every style of barbecue ribs you could imagine, and ultimately choosing the best of the best. But the real standout of the weekend was meeting the pit masters—a dedicated group of down-to-earth cooks who love food, people … and barbecue.
At 46, Bill “Bone Daddy” Wall has been cooking and serving barbecue for 28 years. Even so, an old-timer like Joey Sutphen calls him one of the “young cooks.”
Now based in Michigan, Wall got into the barbecuing business entirely by accident. Living in Colorado, he worked on construction sites building houses deep in the woods. Rather than drive miles back into town for lunch, he began grilling up hot dogs and chicken and … ribs. That’s when the nickname “Bone Daddy” was born.
He’s been attending the best of the West since 1990—and even got married at the Nugget in the midst of all the festivities. For Wall, the cook-off at the Nugget is the best competition of the year; he calls it a “family affair.”
When on the competition circuit, Wall travels with a 16-person crew from Michigan. That tight-knit team will cook up three tons (yes, tons) of ribs, using two face cords of wood. Back home he always cuts his own wood (cherry and sugar maple) and usually cures it for three months—the drier the wood, the hotter it burns, he explains.
For the Nugget Cook-Off, the wood he used was cut nine months prior. Why? “True barbecue is about smoke and flame and good grilling.”
After tasting them, I’m sold on the method. The smoke penetrates the meat so that if you look at the rib from the side you can see a smoke ring.
His style is similar to many of the other competitors, but as in so many things in life, the devil is in the details. At the cook-off, all contestants are required to buy their ribs from Curly’s, a packing house in Sioux City, Iowa. All the ribs are cut the same, St. Louis-style, with the breast bone of the rib removed at the knuckle so there are 12-13 ribs of mostly uniform length. That puts all the cookers on a level playing field so the competition is one of pit-master skills, technique and recipes.
The ribs are first dry rubbed, getting a good massaging with the rub to push the flavors into the meat. Wall’s dry rub is like many used on the circuit: a mix of paprika, garlic, red pepper, smoked chipotle pepper, onion, salt, a little sugar, and, for tenderizing, papaya extract (his secret ingredient).
Next, the ribs are put into the smoker for 4.5 to 5 hours, after which they get a wet glaze of barbecue sauce and put into a hot box for 15-20 minutes. Then they’re put on a wood fired barbecue grill to be finished with Wall’s homemade sauce (only a few minutes). The sauce is tomato-based, a Kansas City-style preparation, which is pretty typical for the circuit (only one cooker at the competition favored a mustard-based South Carolina-style sauce). The difference between sauces is largely in how the cooker plays with the proportion of sugar, vinegar and cayenne.
Some cookers pride themselves on a sauce that features the sharpness of vinegar. Others tout their thermonuclear heat. Wall tries to hit it down the middle, balancing sweetness and acidity with a touch of heat. What makes him happy about the sauce is that he adds what he calls “gravel,” finely diced pieces of onion, green peppers and jalapeños. That added chunkiness gives his ribs an added texture that he believes makes all the difference.
The final step is important to bring the ribs up to the proper temperature and also to finish breaking down the back skin so the rib is practically falling off the bone.
In all these steps, timing is everything. Too much smoke is bad; too much flame and the sugars will carbonize and the ribs will blacken. Ideally all the fat has dissolved, the sugars have caramelized, and the meat has taken on a beautiful mix of flavors: sweet and tart with a little heat.
On the last day of the cook-off I stopped by to talk to Wall again. After five-and-a-half days of cooking in the hot sun and serving thousands of racks a day, he admitted that he was beat.
He and his crew had put in long, hard, 14-hour days and he was looking forward to a break, but they’d had a good time. The staff at the Nugget had kept things running smoothly and the crowds were friendly. He couldn’t ask for more. There was only one thing left to do: wait for the announcement of this year’s winners.
As always, the competition was intense. Like every year, all the heavyweights on the barbecue circuit were there: Famous Dave’s, which won an unprecedented back-to-back first place in 2006 and 2007; Butch Lupinetti of Butch’s Smack Your Lips BBQ was competing, fresh off his latest appearance on the Food Network’s Throwdown with Bobby Flay; the Haskell brothers from Texas Brothers Bar-B-Que; Joey Sutphen of Texas Thunder; Shane Best of Bourbon Q from Westport, Kentucky; and Desperado’s Lee Rice and his family.
This was not only the best of the West, these were the best of the best.
And Wall beat them all. That’s right, a barbecue team out of Midland, Michigan was announced the first-place winner in the Best Ribs category. Not bad for a construction guy who started cooking barbecue because it was too far to drive into town for lunch.
By David Latt for PeterGreenberg.com. Check out David’s food blog for stories and recipes at MenWhoLiketoCook.blogspot.com.
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