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The Great Super Bowl BBQ Cookoff PDF Print E-mail

The Great Super Bowl BBQ Cookoff

by Dave DeWitt


I am not a sports writer, but for one brief shining moment, I became one at the 2004 Super Bowl. Interestingly enough, the sport I covered was not football but rather competition barbecue. Let me explain. I am a rabid football fan and have watched all 38 Super Bowls. In 1980, I went to Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl and cheered as Pittsburgh beat the L.A. Rams 31 to 19. So when Craig Barton called me and invited me to join the Cackalacky Team at the Super Bowl BBQ Cookoff, I couldn’t resist–even though the invitation did not include a ticket to actually see the game.

The Cackalacky Team

Just getting to the cookoff was a royal pain in the pork butt. The cookoff teams were competing in the parking lot of Reliant Center, which is directly across from Reliant Stadium. But to get there, we had to jump through the following hoops.

  1. Stand in a long line to receive our personalized NFL Day Pass.

  2. Drive to a checkpoint to receive a pass to...go to another checkpoint.

  3. At the second checkpoint, we showed our passes and were permitted to drive to...the third checkpoint.

  4. At the third checkpoint, we were greeted by the F.B.I, the U.S.Customs Service, and sheriff’s deputies. Our truck was searched, x-rayed, and checked with a Geiger counter. We were instructed to leave the truck, take everything out of our pockets, and the deputies ran wands over our bodies. Sorta up close and personal.

The Cackalacky Team



The Cackalacky Team



After finding no nuclear weapons, the authorities allowed us to pass through the gates to the cookoff area, where I met the team. Leading the Cackalacky Team was Page Skelton as Team Boss. Page is one of the owners of Cackalacky, Inc., a North Carolina company that manufactures condiments and hot sauces. (Incidentally, "Cackalacky" is a Southern expression for the region that includes both North and South Carolina.) Jimmy O’Brien of Jimmy O’s Texas Marinades was the "Sauce Wrangler" in charge of rubs and marinades, and Craig Barton of Austin Spice Company was the Pit Boss, the one making the crucial decisions about temperature, smoke, and time. Page’s partner, Jeff Nathan, was in charge of taking the samples to the judges. Chip Hearn of Peppers.com and I were honorary members, although Chip helped to prepare the meats for smoking. James and Charlie Savage were the brisket experts and there were three other team members assisting, for a total of eleven. This was the first cookoff for the Cackalacky Team, but everyone was confident–even a bit cocky.

Page has only been barbecuing for three years, but he told me: "I really took to barbecuing as a religion. It’s taken over my life. I barbecue as much as possible. Fortunately my wife loves barbecue, so I’m OK there, though sometimes it takes a little longer than she’d like." I asked him to describe the Super Bowl Cookoff.

Team Boss Page Skelton



Team Boss Page Skelton


"Today, Saturday, before the Super Bowl, we’re having an IBCA (International BBQ Cookers Association) sanctioned competition," he said, "and tomorrow we will be acting basically as caterers for the NFL Super Bowl Tailgate Party. We’ll be feeding approximately 1,500 people that we’re responsible for. There’ll be about15,000 people at the Tailgate. We’ll be doing about 65 whole chickens, 70 racks of spare ribs, and 30 briskets." Fortunately, the NFL was paying for all the food.

The Tailgate Set-Up

As the team members rubbed down the meats to be smoked, I took a tour of the grounds. Outside, there were 21 teams competing, ranging from simple offset smokers like one of the ones we were using, to elaborate, complete smoking/grilling kitchens built into trailers. Some of the competitors dressed up in costumes and decorated their kitchens with props such as rail fences and backdrops. On display, but not competing, was the "World’s Largest Ultimate Smoker and Grill," a 55-foot long smoker and grill that is pulled by a semi-tractor and can smoke a ton of meat at a time.

Dave with the World’s Largest Smoker in background



Your author with the World’s
Largest Smoker in background


Inside Reliant Center, about 150,000 square feet of space (more than twice the size of the National Fiery-Foods and Barbecue Show) was decorated Western-style for the NFL’s Ultimate Tailgate Party. There were livestock pens to show off cattle, a 150-foot long bar with an aerial walkway over it for the go-go dancers, a stage where Duran Duran was to perform, large screen TVs everywhere, a huge, elaborate carved wooden bar in the NFL team owners area, several dozen beer stands, and a large "restaurant" where the BBQ cookers would serve their chicken, ribs, brisket, and sides. I’ve been a show producer for more than 30 years and thought that I’d seen it all, but after viewing that set-up, all I could say was "Wow!" I wondered what the total cost of the Tailgate Party was–probably millions of dollars.

Serious Smokin’

Back in our team tent, Jimmy O was still patting rub on the meat, and I asked him about his barbecuing ability. "I like to think that my experience in all aspects of the restaurant business, from management, working the kitchen, catering gigs, everything, helps the team. Fifteen years of it. And the recipes for the spice rubs, marinades, and sauces are all my own, that I’ve tested through the years and perfected. That’s what I contribute: the technique, the ingredients, the products, and my restaurant expertise."

Pit Boss Craig Barton



Pit Boss Craig Barton


The Pit Boss, Craig, was placing briskets in the pit when I asked him about his smoking techniques for the cookoff. "Today, because of all the security, we got in late," he told me, "and we’re cooking this a little warmer than what we would normally cook. What we do is we run a couple of different pits. The ribs and the brisket will go in the rotisserie pit--a propane-assisted oak wood barbecue pit--and the chicken will go in my offset pit. So it makes a little different set- up."

Beer can chicken in the smoker



Beer can chicken in the smoker


"Do you open it up often and take a look and see how they’re doing?" I asked.

"No, you don’t play with the food," he replied, "just let it cook. We’ll check the briskets in a little while when we put the ribs in here, in probably about an hour. And they’ll go for six hours."

You’ve heard of "Water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink?" Well, we had "Food, food, everywhere and not a bite to eat," plus "Beer, beer, everywhere and not a drop to drink." The powers that be had not thought to provide a caterer for the caterers, so we went hungry until the chickens were cooked. And because of Reliant Center regulations, the competitors were not allowed to drink beer. This was considered a sacrilege–BBQ cookers without beer was unheard of. You could baste meats with the beer but not drink it, and if you were caught with alcohol on your breath, you and your team would be disqualified and escorted from the grounds. What a bunch of spoil-sports.

Holy Cow Cookers mascot



Holy Cow Cookers mascot


Judging and the Results

The rules were strict about when and how the meats were turned in for judging. Just before five o’clock, Craig and Jimmy O picked the best-looking one-half chicken of the six that had been smoked for the competition. Then Jeff carried the styrofoam container out of the tent and to the judges.

"Use both hands," Page called to him.

Ribs, ready for the judges



Ribs, ready for the judges


At six, Craig and Jimmy O selected the seven best ribs for the judges and at seven o’clock, seven carefully trimmed slices of brisket. Interestingly, the judges did not allow any of the meats to be sauced–they had to be judged precisely as they came out of the smoker. Since the awards would not be presented until 9 p.m., we had two hours to kill. So we ate some ribs, then some brisket. I wandered into Reliant Center and listened to Duran Duran’s sound check, during which they played "Wild Boys" over and over again at approximately the same volume as a F-14 fighter plane taking off. I sneaked a beer. I went back into Reliant and watched the go-go dancers practice–in jeans and sweatshirts. Back in the tent, the Cackalacky Team was twitching nervously.

Brisket, ready for the judges



Brisket, ready for the judges


At nine, all the teams assembled at the "restaurant" area inside Reliant and the winners were announced in each category, from tenth to first place. For Chicken, we won...nothing. That didn’t surprise me because the chicken, much like Janet Jackson the next day, had a "wardrobe malfunction," with the crispy skin separating way too easily from the meat. Next up were the awards for Ribs, and we finished (drum roll)...seventh out of 21. Not too bad for a first team effort. And in the Brisket category (another drum roll), we finished....fourth out of 21. We cheered and sang the "Cackalacky Song."

Cackalacky! Cackalacky! Cackalacky all day long! Cakalacky! Cackalacky! Cackalacky's where I belong!

I was so excited that I lost all my journalistic integrity and forgot to write down the names of the first place teams and the grand prize winner. But who cares? This article is about us, not them! Back in the tent, we did a quick post-judging analysis a decided that we did pretty darn good for a first effort and that we would compete again–but next time in a cookoff that allowed beer.

Oh–and the score of the Super Bowl, which I watched the next day on TV back in Albuquerque, was New England 32, Cackalacky 29.

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