Beer & Smoking in Danville, Illinois
Published in the 2013 edition of Perseus Books’ Best Food Writing anthology.
We were just outside Danville on the edge of the cornfield when the nerves began to take hold. Weeks before, in a mood of fine strong confidence, I determined that months of covering barbecue competitions had provided enough wisdom that I was ready to get my own two hands dirty. It was time to take action. Stop watching the parade of pits and pork and engage. It was important that I dig in and do it myself. It was necessary: Rub the meat. Smoke the meat. Cover the story. I cast about for a suitable venue for this escapade, and settled on a KCBS competition in the town of Danville, Illinois, an hour and a half away at lawful highway speeds. I recruited a team of assistants and fronted $250 in cash for the entry fee. We reserved the weekend and thought no more of it.
The morning before the contest I began to prepare. Proper equipment is important. We had five bags of charcoal, thirty pounds of meat, two high-tech probe thermometers, three coolers, four folding tables, five lawn chairs, a collection of knives, an assortment of sweatshirts, a box of cigars, a bottle of whiskey, a case of beer, a sack of pecan wood, and a whole galaxy of rubs, sauces, marinades, mustards, vinegars, salts, peppers, stocks, pans, infusions, foils, and plastic tubs. We needed all that for the competition, mind you, though once you get locked into a serious barbecue collection the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
We opened the whiskey and began loading the rented flatbed trailer. Considering our inexperience with this sort of undertaking, I would say we did well. I had the foresight to rent an open trailer with two wheels and high sides that we could tow with an SUV, freeing us from the need to cram three vehicles with grease and smoke and kitchenware. We lashed the backyard smokers to the trailer railings and used the coolers and charcoal to wedge them in place. We pulled away from the house with total confidence, and made it nearly two hundred yards before our careful knots unraveled. This was no time to panic. Our expedition was resilient. We stopped the car in the middle of a white suburban street and reorganized using construction straps while jabbering at one another about inertia and vibration. The police did not arrive while we repacked, which was wise. We were in a state of high excitement, which can be interpreted by the cop mind as indicative of drug use and miscreant behavior. We were ill-prepared to convincingly explain that only one of those was at hand, so it was a relief to begin rolling again.
We made it to Danville in the nick of time and rolled down Vermilion Street, Danville’s main drag, with “No Vaseline” playing loudly. Ice Cube is a musician that announces your presence with authority. We were here to brook no guff from the locals. We had come to compete. To win. To take the prize away from some bumpkin and his Weber kettles and swagger out of town with a couple of local girls staring sadly as our trailer grew smaller in the distance. We quoted Bill Murray often…”Cinderella story…outta nowhere…”
This was my stated goal. In truth, of the seventeen teams, my best-case goal was to finish anything other than dead last.
The team next to us had an RV complete with sponsorship banners and a smoker larger than our trailer. The team across from us had a display of trophies, several of which were taller than the shortest of us. This was unnerving. The chimney-box they used merely to start their charcoal fires was nicer than all of our equipment combined and their smokers may have cost as much as the Honda Pilot in which we had arrived to the competition. We began to consider the possibility that we were overmatched. We parked with some difficulty – parallel parking a fifteen-foot two-wheel flatbed trailer is a difficult proposition even with a hand not unsteady with nerve – and rushed quickly to the cooks’ meeting, a gathering of the grim-faced men and women who comprised our competition. I had attended these meetings before, but always in the service of journalism. Today I was no journalist. Today I was a participant. We were addressed by Danville’s mayor, who smiled a great deal and reminded me of the actor Troy McClure. He welcomed us to Danville and was very nice. The contest’s organizer spoke. We were humming with adrenaline at this point, and impatient while she went on about quiet times and KCBS rules and souvenir t-shirts. We had not come for t-shirts. We had come for trophies. I signed a piece of paper agreeing to abide by all the rules and took away the four white foam clamshell boxes that marked us as serious competitors. “Beer & Smoking in Las Vegas” was emblazoned on our entry form. I swelled with pride. A name is important. A name announces to the other teams that you are not someone to be trifled with. You are no backyard nebbish who brags to the your nearest lawnmowers and gutter-cleaners that you make the finest ribs on the block. You are a serious competitor. You deserve respect.
We took our clamshells back to our cooksite and began to plot. It was crucial to the success of our plan that the brisket go on around 9 p.m. The pork butts could wait until midnight. We opened the first round of drinks and lit cigars; an important step in the preparation of quality competition barbecue. We scurried around our cooksite, unpacking and assessing our circumstances. It had grown dark, and we realized we were hungry. We rooted through the coolers for dinner, but found only a bag of pretzels and some Combos left from the trip down. In our haste to pack all the things we needed to dominate the competition, it had slipped our minds that we would require a meal or two before our meat was ready to feast upon. Thus it was that, at nine p.m. and surrounded by fine barbecue cooks from all around the Midwest, I found myself on the telephone in an argument with a sour employee of Papa John’s about delivering pizza to a parking space on Vermilion Street. He insisted that a physical address was necessary, and that I was not making a reasonable request in urging him to deliver to “the green Honda Pilot parked two hundred feet north of Main Street.” I saw the strategic need to concede to this rigid corporate policy and pretended I was a late-working drone at the law firm across the street. The driver arrived forty-three minutes later, and I intercepted his dogged effort to deliver pizza to a closed law firm by vigorously explaining the complexities of the situation until he fled.
We began preparing the brisket. I had visited a meat-cutter in Chicago, and we were well-supplied with animal flesh. One whole untrimmed brisket, two monstrous pork butts, four slabs of fine St. Louis cut spare ribs, and sixteen pale chicken thighs on the bone. We stripped the brisket from its Cryovac packaging and rubbed it with yellow mustard. The mustard is flavorless, but ensures the spices adhere. We expertly covered the brisket in a spice mixture of my own devising. I had packed enough brown sugar and kosher salt to rub a dozen briskets, and to the salt and sugar were added seasonings of a dozen types. When rubbing something that will be smoked for more than twelve hours, there is no room for subtlety. You need bold flavor. There were chiles of several types, a large hit of garlic and black pepper, and several exotic paprikas. We viciously punctured the meatslab with the Jaccard tenderizer. The Jaccard is a savage thing; brass knuckles with steel teeth. It chewed the brisket a hundred times before we wrapped the thing in plastic and left it to absorb the flavors of the rub.
The temperature was dropping, chilling everything. I fired the first of the two smokers, to warm the inside in advance of the brisket. The fire was a welcome presence, adding the light smell of pecan smoke to the air and warming those with the fortitude to stand close enough. We felt the need for more beer before repeating the rubbing process with the butts. The butts received much the same physical treatment, but we adjusted the ingredients. You cannot just shake a few spices over competition barbecue meat. You have to season it. You have to build a flavor profile. Salt is a critical aid to the osmosis of flavor, but pigmeat has an affinity for sweetness. We accounted for this by adding pomegranate molasses to the mustard and increasing the sugar in the rub as we invented. Pomegranate molasses! I felt clever for having thought of this exotic component. We crusted the pigmeat heavily with seasoning before rolling it in plastic and setting it aside to wallow in its flavor-mud.
We had some downtime now while the smoker heated and the meat absorbed. I seized this opportunity to visit with our neighbor. The banner on the RV next to us read “82’s BBQ” and I stepped next door to watch the captain prepare his own meat, bearing an extra beer as a gift to our neighbor. Jasen and his wife Leslie talked barbecue with my team for hours that weekend, speaking of other competitions they had seen, helping us acclimate to the rigors of competition, and even sharing a secret or two. Leslie led us to the nearest grocery around eleven when we ran out of whiskey and paper towels. They were so kind to us that we grew suspicious. If they hoped to become close to us and steal our barbecue secrets, they were in for a nasty surprise. If they had malevolent intention it would be much effort for nothing, because, like a great knuckleballer, our secret weapon was that we didn’t know what we were going to do either.
No matter. High time to chamber the brisket and prepare the ribs. The brisket slid cleanly from the eleven feet of plastic-wrap it had taken to contain the thing into the chamber of the Pitmaster, where it would rest and cook for the next thirteen hours. Jasen and I were drinking beers and discussing high adventure when we began to wear the uncomfortable facial expressions of men when each thinks the other has farted. Eventually the smell grew powerful enough that we confessed our repulsion, and, each denying the deed, began to seek the source of the stink. A terrible realization dawned: My team members had opened the first Cryovac package of ribs and unleashed a hellish stench.
Stay calm. Maintain. This is no crisis. This is a speed-bump. Competition does not always go as planned. It is those who can overcome setbacks that succeed. You are prepared for this. You built in redundancy. Open the other package of ribs.
Stench! From the second package! Now we have a crisis. Now the men will be truly separated from the boys! It is midnight in Danville, and we have no ribs. Failure to compete in all four categories is both a disgrace and a disqualification. This cannot stand. I ran at top speed toward the stark lights of the all-night grocer two blocks away. The twenty-four hour grocery is often a depressing place at midnight, filled with whores and thieves and dopers desperate for cookie dough and Cool Whip. I forgave the place all of it tonight, for there were four half-frozen slabs of “baby back ribs” remaining in the meat section.
Baby back ribs are the choice of no true barbecue competitor. They are small and dry out easily and provide little meat compared to the true American masculinity of spare ribs. Tonight they would be pressed into service. Bad ribs are better than none at all, and those of us casting about for pork ribs at midnight in Danville could not afford to be choosy about the cut.
My ribs and I – and a pint of rum I felt necessary to treat the oncoming chill – raced back to our competition site, where I found my team giggling like children about the meat’s disposal in a trash bin a thousand feet downwind of us. “You fools!” I shouted, “stop this. We have a crisis to avert.” We unpacked my treasure and prepared it, peeling membranes by feel and coating the ribs with the same rub-mixture with which we had encrusted the butts. By this time we were coming to realize that it would have been wise to bring a construction lamp, but we forged through the darkness in the knowledge that what were were doing was right, that we were the undiscovered gem of the contest. We were totally confident in our methods. We believed. We had no special secret or revealed wisdom. We were rolling on the high of rookie hubris, the stories in our heads full of “Rookie Team Shocks Danville Competition” headlines and shining trophies.
It was around this time that Jasen told us that, of the seventeen teams in the contest, eleven were nationally ranked.
This put a small dent in our swagger, and we pressed him for details.
“Those guys over there,” he said, indicating a camper-trailer that had a smokestack emerging from the back of the trailer, “are ranked number two in Brisket nationwide.”
“The one on the end,” he said, pointing at a mobile kitchen that looked like something a wealthy oilman would tow to tailgate at a college football home game at his alma mater, “was the number-four ranked barbecue team in America for the whole of last year.”
I considered this. He continued to reel off a lavish list of honors accumulated by the eleven major players at the contest. We began passing the bottle of whiskey from man to man as the situation came to look less and less hopeful for the four of us. I began to despair. We needed an infusion of confidence.
“So what you’re saying,” I asked, “is that this competition is as though the local community college decided to hold a basketball tournament and eight members of the ACC showed up?”
He agreed that this was a fair comparison.
“So there are really two competitions here,” I said. “There is the one among the top eleven teams, and then a lesser competition for spots twelve through seventeen?”
It was so.
It was one-thirty in the morning, when the soul is hibernating, and the cold is breaking over you like waves, and the darkness swallows hope and motivation in equal measure. This called for a motivational speech. For a man in charge of a team to draw the best from them, to move them with his words, to restore their merit and motive with fine strong words. Time to speak. Time to rally the troops.
Unfortunately, one of our number had already rolled himself in blankets and passed out in a lawn chair. He was not just asleep, he was a goddamn vegetable. This was ultimately a good thing, though because it allowed the two of us still awake to focus on the cigars and whiskey and to use the bravado those provide in men to talk ourselves back into the idea of staying up all night in pursuit of victory.
The temperature had dropped below the point of bearable, and I realized that it would have been wise to bring blankets or a tent. Too late for creature comforts! We had work to do. We moved the two smokers closer together, putting the fireboxes a few feel apart to maximize warmth. We then lit the second smoker; we needed the hot boxes prepared by 3am to smoke the pork butts properly. It was forty-three degrees on-site, and we needed the smokers to hold 225 degrees if we were to maintain hope. We loaded them with charcoal and pecan and opened the airvents wide to facilitate the combustion process. The warmth the two fireboxes provided was enough to sustain us. We put the butts on around 3am. My second teammate elected to attempt a so-called disco nap, and climbed into the Pilot for warmth. Within moments his snoring caused the green SUV to shake as if a bear had become trapped inside and gone into a panic.
Usable smokers start around $150 and go up to prices you might see paid for a fine Thoroughbred racehorse. The primary difference among the type we used, the offset-firebox type, is in the amount of effort and attention required to maintain a constant temperature: The more money you pay for the smoker, the less attention you have to pay to the smoker. Our two smokers each retailed for around $150. A good general leads his men by example. If my team needed sleep; their captain could not. I opened a small vial of electric dynamite called “Five-Hour Energy” and sent the contents sizzling into my nervous system. And then because we had another of the little grenades, I sent it after the first, hoping to burn through the cold and the dark.
I vibrated my way through the next three hours with my heart pounding a John Bonham drum solo while I monitored the readouts of the twin probe thermometers that kept me in tune with the atmosphere inside the black barrels. Add a little wood, open the vents, watch the heat soar, trim the airflow, watch it slowly drop, repeat. I would wave in quiet solidarity to my fellow night-tenders as we rode together in the starlight. How I envied those with the means to sleep indoors, secure in the knowledge that their rich-man’s smokers would hold temperature through the hours only beasts and long-haul truck drivers should see.
At some point the beer was gone.
The sky lightened around 6am and a friendly woman with an enormous smile walked down Vermilion Street inviting the teams to breakfast. I kicked my team from their slumbers to prep the chicken thighs. I stripped the skin from the sixteen thighs and slashed the fat out from underneath while my teammates mixed a brine. The ratio of salt to sugar to water in a brine is critical. A miscalculation in the ratios can ruin everything. We had to be careful. Brining requires absolute goddamn precision. We would be making two gallons of powerful chicken brine, and one of the things we had forgotten was a measuring cup.
Don’t panic. All is well. We just have to convert. We may have omitted the measuring cup, yes, but stop worrying! We have a teaspoon. All we need to do is some goddamn math. Twenty-four teaspoons of kosher salt and thirty-six of brown sugar per gallon of water. This mathematical calculation made us feel like scientists. Then to get the salt and sugar to dissolve into the gallon of cold water quickly, we had to mix it with our fingers. If not for the whiskey and the beer and the coffee and the Five-Hour Energy and the cold medicine someone had bought during the night to ward off mucus, we would have been miserable with cold. But we forged ahead, dropping the skinned thighs into the brine while saving the skins to wrap back around the juicier thighs after the brining process was complete. This was primal. Is there another undertaking in which you would save the flayed skin of a creature to rewrap around its dead flesh after soaking it in chemicals to improve the flavor? We were twisted enough to rejoice in such savagery, and call ourselves brilliant for it. I was not ashamed of us then; we were in the grip of competition. No advantage was too grotesque.
Those of us who had been up all night were in the mood for coffee and donuts. The competition provided weak coffee, but I needed a strong drink. I walked across the street to the “Java Hut” for a large red-eye. A red-eye is a roiling broth of caffeine comprised of near-equal parts brewed coffee and espresso. The potion gives a king-hell rush on a normal morning but was just enough to keep me upright today. A donut also. I had had enough of cold pizza and raw meat; warm pastry and sugar soothed the stomach I had angered with alcohol and stimulants.
The rubbed and seasoned emergency ribs went into the smokers next, which required a game of of Meat Tetris. We had to fit all of the meat into the two smokers while ensuring even heating; a challenge in the best of times. We were buzzing now, moving as one, with a single purpose: Adhere to the schedule. The schedule rules barbecue competitions like a cruel Nazi dominatrix with a whip and a stopwatch. There is no quarter from the clock. Many teams will appease this vicious goddess by posting the schedule outside near the smoker, like Texas farmers hanging coyotes from fenceposts. We had nothing to hang a schedule from, and relied on cellphone alarms and focus. 8am: Ribs go on. The next will be the chicken, at 1030. We return our focus on the coffee, and begin preparing our clamshells. This is easy: Beds of greenleaf lettuce. I will have no truck with chopping a million sprigs of parsley.
The cold wet chicken comes out of the brine at 930, and we begin patting it dry. I pause in my Hannibal-Lecterish wrapping of the meat in its own scraped skin to demand music. A cold September morning in central Illinois calls for plenty of pounding bass to get the blood flowing. We load up a playlist filled with references to shaking booties and capping asses and the city of Compton in California and get to business on the birds. We season the thighs with flavored salts only, relying on the molasses and sauce to flavor the sole bite most judges will take. Outside of a bloody bite of rare birdflesh, there is little more off-putting on a chicken thigh than the grit of dry seasoning on moist dark meat. We are careful and attentive. That’s something we have lasered in on by this point; attention to detail. We have no other choice: In our current state, which combines serious sleep deprivation with advanced caffeination and mild hangovers, we have only two settings, Seriously Hyperfocused and Off. We must choose the former as we cannot allow the latter. Vigilance.
Okay. All the meat is in. The boxes are ready. The knives are sharp. The tables are sparkling clean. You could lick our tables safely, even after the gory horrors of the chicken. We are ready. Poised. The team is moving as one now. We are in the zone. We have an hour before the first turn-in. Desperate to not lose momentum, we light fresh cigars and add rum to the coffee. We are loose and ready. We are anxious as dogs to have a shot at the meat.
We are also unnerved, for the brisket has been hanging at 145 degrees for many hours. We had been warned this would happen, that brisket “plateaus” before rocketing up to the 195 degrees at which we pull it off and rest it. I pull out my cellphone and text the Big Woodie team, who affirm this phenomenon. My pulse quickens: We are out on the edge now. “Timing is critical!” I shout at a passing family. If our brisket is not complete by one-fifteen, we will be submitting undercooked brisket. I did not stay up all night, jangling from the double-shot of Five-Hour Energy, to submit an undercooked brisket. I monitor the temperature in the smoke chamber closely and rail at God and physics.
The chicken is due in at noon. Six pieces, one for each of the American citizens with a judge’s certification from KCBS. We choose to submit eight. Let them pick from a box of plenty. This is goddamn America, after all. Gluttony matters. Overstuffing the box is a sign of prosperity. The judges will respect prosperity; it makes them think we had so much magnificent product to submit that we could not bear to choose only six. We choose from the sixteen candidates the eight pieces most pleasing to the critic’s eye and arrange it in the box. Artfully, artfully; it would not do to give away our nervous inexperience with a sloppy arrangement. The box is away, run into the judging area on feet floating on hope. We seize the opportunity, in the down time, to taste the chicken.
Shock. Awe. This is goddamn staggering. These chicken thighs have outpaced not just anything I thought we could make, but anything I thought could be made of chicken thighs at all. They are juicy and tender and so flavorful I begin to wonder if I am hallucinating, if I will look up from a bite of this extraordinary birdflesh to see a lizard lumbering toward me from Jasen and Leslie’s RV, a dead chicken of its own hanging from slavering jaws. Maintain.
The ribs are next. We begin to slice them apart with a sharp folding knife and are foiled. The goddamn cheap factory-farm ribs, the ones that replaced the spoiled mess, are themselves awful. They are crosshatched with chunks of knuckle and cartilage, and tough as shoes. What edible meat there is is delicious, but it is like eating the meat from a rabbit’s foot—all tiny bones and morsels.
Nothing to be done. While these ribs are a sure last place, no ribs at all is a disqualification. We man up, determined to own our mistake like adults. Like proud Americans. We retouch the veneer of sauce with an artist’s paintbrush of molasses, and stack them prettily in the box. Presentation counts, and we may do well aesthetically with these hideous cartilaginous fingers until someone bites into them.
The brisket is rising again. 178 degrees. It has one hour to go.
Pork is next. We pull off the butts from the smokers to rest before pulling, and begin to strip the bark from the swine to test the flavor profile. Holy god. The flavor of the butts’ outside is astonishing. How did we make this black magic? It is dark and rich and smoky and sweet and piggy all at once. My head swims. I cannot begin to imagine how we did this, though I could recount every step from slicing open the Cryovac to tasting this bit of pigskin.
“Sorcery!” I shout to a child staring hungrily at my cutting board. He flees.
We pull the butts into shreds with two savage torture-forks, season the pulled meat, and pile twelve ounces of it majestically in the foam container. We are salivating like starving mongrels at the sight of this meat. The judges cannot help but do the same, we reason. They are flesh and blood and appetite. They are human. They will swoon. They will be entranced. They will lust for our butts.
That last notion causes us, so tired that everything is much funnier than it should be, to have to sit down. “Lust for our butts!” we shout, laughing maniacally, like men who have been sniffing ether for hours rather than pecan-wood smoke.
The brisket is a photo finish. We watch the temperature climb and the clock tick the way that men strapped into Old Sparky watch the clock and the phone with equal trepidation. Finally the governor calls – 195 degrees! We have ten minutes. We gently separate the flat from the point with a machete sharpened for the purpose. One of the team bought the machete from a fat Samoan, which is a good sign. The flat of the brisket is sliced to the thickness of a Camel cigarette, while the point is returned to the grill to sear before we chop it into burnt ends. We taste the brisket, and we are turned to gods.
We did this. Humans. Men. Those of us who stayed up all night made the chest-muscle of an ordinary cow into this slice. We have created something otherworldly. We chop and taste the burnt ends, and we realize that if we do not rush this entry to the judges at highway speeds, we will consume it all in minutes, like hungry wolves shredding the carcass of a jackrabbit.
We slice the brisket with care, arranging six slices of tender flesh around the six handsome succulent chunks of burnt ends. It pains us to give up so much delicious brisket. We begin to discuss how anyone could possibly have made a superior brisket that day, or ever. But I have been up for more than thirty hours, and the job is done. I collapse in a chair, head lolling, and find involuntary oblivion for two hours.
The sun stabs me in the eyes so painfully I briefly wonder if I have been assaulted by a deranged cook wielding the Jaccard tenderizer. I force myself awake. I have slept two hours to little effect. I am exhausted. The team has organized us somewhat, but we still have a lot of packing and cleanup to do. I rise from the chair, joints screaming, and begin restocking the trailer.
Good god, there are a lot of empty bottles.
We scrape the hot coals from the smokers and drain the grease as best we can. The coolers are lightened considerably, but we again make use of their rectangular bulk to block the smokers in place as we strap them to the trailer rails. The wood and charcoal are gone. The cooked meat is packed in coolers with ice. We hitch the trailer to the Pilot and walk stiffly to Temple Plaza, a tiny park on Vermilion Street that serves as the awards site. Local worthies in suits are speaking, but I ignore their jabbering. I am thinking about our trophies. Our meat, save the ribs, was magnificent. We had triumphed. We had barbecued. We surpassed expectations. I was proud as could be already, and this made me believe we could compete with the big boys. Seventeen teams. Surely we were in the top ten. I had tasted our barbecue, and it was better than anything I had ever had. I believed it better than anyone had ever had.
The woman who organized the contest began to call out winners. She would call out the top ten finishers in each category. As fine a job as we had done with our meat, I prepared myself for how I would react when she called out “Beer and Smoking in Las Vegas!” I would walk up, accept the envelope and the trophy, and nod modestly at the photographers from the local newspaper and the teams who stared enviously at my prize. There will be no hooting and waving. Act like you’ve been there before. Dignity.
She never called us.
All of that sublime, ambrosial meat, and not a single top-ten finish in any category? I began to fume. Some Nazi swine had rigged the contest. This was predetermined, like professional wrestling or Nixon’s election. We had been robbed of a rightful prize. I was jabbering like an ape when I received the complete rankings and final scoresheet.
NOT LAST! NOT LAST! HOLY SHIT! NOT LAST! SIXTEENTH OF SEVENTEEN! HOLY SHIT! NOT LAST!
“Beer and Smoking in Las Vegas” has a future here. I have refining to do. Practice. Analysis. My team needs to be strengthened with specialists. I need to improve the equipment and the planning. I must practice. I have work to do. But it can be done. I was dehydrated and exhausted and hung-over, and just sick enough to be totally confident.