It’s cold outside. It’s snowing and they talk about more snow. As I was cleaning snow and ice off my car on a recent subzero morning, all I could think about was a warm mid-summer Friday evening, smokers billowing, beverages flowing, laughter all around, and I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t complain one time next summer about being too hot…yeah right.

Here’s the second installation of the 3-part series on competitions. This one’s all about Friday night: characterized by intense packets of activity followed and extended durations of loafing, visiting, eating, and soaking up the BBQ experience. Friday is the fun part of competition BBQ. The timings below are my basic targets, other’s schedules may vary significantly, but then so does everyone’s BBQ.

11a – 1:00p – Arrival. The first thing I usually do is berate myself for not being earlier. Regardless of my arrival time, I always wish I was two hours earlier. As you arrive, you’ll seek out the organizer or a delegated check-in person. They’ll point you to your site and explain any other tidbits you should be aware of (water, restrooms etc). This person should also be able to inspect your meat. The meat inspection process is simple, they peek in, make sure everything is appropriately handled, and there has been no spicing or marinating etc. This task is best dealt with ASAP, just eliminate that stressor. Otherwise, you’re constantly looking over your shoulder for someone to look at the meat, silently letting your stress level build and build. Best to dismiss it as you arrive.

12:00-2:00 – Site Setup. Accomplished teams will give you one golden nugget of information, get yourself organized. Some are organized in large RVs, others in trailers, others, such as our team, are in a minivan. Knowing where things are, and an order of how things must progress will expedite the set-up process tremendously. We don’t have a punch list, but it wouldn’t hurt, especially for the first time Newbie. We’ve cut our set up time from 3.5 to 4 hours at the first contest to more like 1 to 1.5 hours by the end of the season. The objective of the competition is to prep, cook, and serve the best BBQ you can produce. The sooner you get to those tasks, the more enjoyable the entire event will be for your team. And the sooner your done with the first task of prepping, the sooner you’ll be visiting friends, eating dinner, and assuming that BBQer position of sitting down, propping your feet up, sipping on a beverage. The EZ-ups raise, the tables go up, the cookers get positioned, and the place begins resembling one of those images we’ve seen on TV, a BBQ contest. Adding to the authenticity, you’ll smell someone cooking some kind of BBQ already.

Go greet your neighbors. They will be around you for the next 24 hours and most important, you will finally meet folks that share your passion for BBQ. Family, friends, co-workers express interest in your passion, but few understand why we go through the efforts we do. You’ll finally come face to face with other folks who do understand. Like everything else BBQ, this feeling of camaraderie cultivates “low and slow”, developing its print in your mind as you meet more folks, cook more contests, and sit still in the night, hearing only the opening and closing of pit doors or lids. No it’s not a sudden initiation that’s over after one ceremony, but instead is an evolution defined by a series of events that have no clear ending. This journey starts by meeting your neighbors.

1:00 – 3:00 – Meat prep. This effort ranges from just rubbing or injecting to having to do all the trimming. Late last season, I followed the advice of veterans and did my trimming at home. Trimming meat in less then ideal conditions is a stressor that is easily eliminated. This gets back to the underestimated aspect of BBQ, you have to be able to relax. And the sooner you can get to relax mode, the better the whole event will be. This whole meat prep thing now takes us around 1.5 to 2 hours…and it includes visiting with teams, tracking down water, and heating water for washing. Although my biggest motivator may be my rule: I don’t allow myself any “adult beverage” until the meat is safely tucked back into the coolers. That rule doesn’t apply to the rest of the team.

With the meat prepped, rubbed, marinating, whatever, you’re able to finally crack that beverage, sit down, take a deep breath and relax. No work worries, no worries about meat suppliers, no shopping. So 3-4 hours after arrival, you find that first lull period.

4:00 – 6:00 – Cooks Meeting. This is another contest feature that differentiates newbies from veterans. Vets have heard the CD so often, they can recite it by heart. The CD includes an oral reminder of the rules of a KCBS contest, and at this meeting you’ll also receive your turn-in boxes. Veteran teams just want their boxes, while as a newbie, you’re inclined to pay attention to everything going on at the meeting. While the vets are cutting up and trash talking, newbies have a serious look about them. Or at least they should. It’s a GOOD thing to take this meeting seriously. Listen to the CD, reread the rules, understand them and ask questions if you have them. Nothing could make a competition experience more disappointing than to have the contest rep walk to your tent after turn-ins to inform you of a DQ, a disqualification. When the reps ask for the new teams to identify themselves, don’t be shy. That way, as the evening wears on, folks will be inclined to stop by and see how things are going. Get your turn-in boxes, put them in a safe spot, and go enjoy the rest of BBQ Friday night.

6:00-10:00 – Visit, fraternize, eat dinner, relax. This is one of the finest moments of a competition. Old friendships are reestablished, new ones are made, buzzes come and go, and the “bull” runs thick. This is also when a newbie can go to school. Talk to teams, learn what contests they attended, what they like, learn about cookers. But this is also where things can get out of hand. At some contests, you’ll run across teams that have fully stocked bars with nothing but the most premium “beverages”. That’s part of the fun granted, but you can’t let it get in the way of the primary objective, prepping, cooking, and serving meat. Eventually, a happy medium will be established, and/or you’ll gain an understanding of how to cope with cottonmouth and a pounding head. Legends on the circuit that have done their best work hungover, but there are also examples of some bad product getting put out by the team that had one dozen too many the night before. This is an area that you and you alone will have to figure out. For me, I know my limits, and sometimes feel quite obliged to step right over them.

It’s also during this time frame that most cooks will fire up their cookers. Here’s where another golden nugget of information comes in, know your cooker, and cook the way YOU have decided to cook. You cannot be worried that the team next to you put on pork at 6:00pm, and you think it needs to go on at midnight. People will be putting their briskets and pork on at all sorts of hours. But only you know how you want to cook. Come with your cook plan in mind, and stick to it. If it needs modified at a later time, do so, but don’t be intimidated by what others are doing.

Etiquette, another topic that isn’t discussed much. These are the unwritten rules of behavior at a contest. You will find yourself talking about BBQ in a way you never have. You’ll learn new techniques, rumors of secret recipes, legendary cooking approaches that will assure a call on Saturday. It’s OK to ask questions, but a good rule of thumb is to use your ears more than your mouth. Don’t expect detailed descriptions of rub ingredients, or application tricks. Honestly, over time you’ll learn a lot about those, if you listen. Respect your neighbors. Respect the quiet hours. And try to watch out for your lighting too as your bright halogen lights might be glaring right into someone trying to catch a little snooze.

10:00-1:00a – Sleep. Again, opinions differ here. Some swear they can function just fine with cat naps, while others might get more sleep than they do during the week. Don’t forget that the ribs will have to go on the cooker at dawn. If you function best with several hours of sleep, plan accordingly.

BBQ Friday nights are special. You may find yourself star gazing while in the middle of a ball field, or huddled under a canopy watching buckets of rain come rushing through your cook site. I think one allure of BBQ is the peer acceptance of nomadic behavior you and your fellow BBQers exhibit. BBQ Friday night is when these nomads come to foster the camaraderie with fellow BBQ gypsies.

In the deep of winter, its OK to fantasize about competitions later in the summer. And your fantasies will most likely include fond memories of BBQ Friday night. Merry Christmas fellow Qers and please have a happy and safe holiday season.

Joey Mac