Jack Daniels Invitational October 27, 2012
The four days spanning the October 27, 2012 weekend were a giddy blur as the SYD team finished 27th out of 87 teams at the prestigious Jack Daniels Invitational Barbecue contest in Lynchburg, Tennessee. There were 68 domestic teams and 19 international teams. SYD was the strongest finisher among the 7 teams from California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. The 2012 Grand Champion was Pig Skin BBQ of Iowa and the Reserve Champion was Swiggin’s Pig from Tennessee. In contests featuring world class competitors, the winner is often determined by fractions of a point so Pig Skin BBQ deserves special mention and acknowledgement because they dominated this contest with a total of 708 points which was 19 points over the Reserve Champion! Well done to Scott and Katy Nelson and their 5 children of Pig Skin BBQ!
I know the question on your mind is “Harry, is the Jack all that it’s made up to be?” I can now answer with an emphatic “YES” because I’ve finally cooked the Jack after a four year fun journey of 27 grand championships and 75+ first places to get there. To date, four of my students, out of 600+, have made it to the Jack and all of them before me. I enjoyed the 2012 Jack immensely from two perspectives: one, the chance to be in a world-class contest against some of the best in the nation and abroad, and two, the opportunity to absorb all the wonderful Jack traditions and entertainment from Friday to Saturday.
For me, it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If you have the opportunity, I strongly suggest that you experience this contest as words do not suffice. I think it was my student Tom Duncan of Whiskey Ranch, AZ, who described it best last year when I spoke to him after he and his wife Jennifer Duncan of Smoked To The Bone had cooked the 2011 jack, ”If you don’t cook the Jack, you don’t get what it’s about.” So, if you ever have an opportunity to cook or be on a team that has been invited to the Jack, you should not say no. Read on if you want a front-row seat if you’re a new team wanting to go to the Jack to see what it’s all about.
When I was a rookie pitmaster in 2008, many teams would whisper in awe of a mystical place that every BBQ team in the world dreams of going to. Many seasoned teams consider it the most prestigious BBQ event on the planet and equivalent to the World Series, Super Bowl, and Mount Everest of barbecue. For the past 24 years, the Jack Daniels Invitational Contest in Lynchburg, Tennessee, affectionately known as “The Jack”, is an annual barbecue event which you cannot go unless invited. There is no entry fee but you have to earn an invite to the Jack. A Grand Championship would warrant you a “bung” with your team name which would be put into a lottery with all the Grand Champions of your state. This wooden bung is a stopper from a genuine Jack Daniels whiskey oak barrel. One bung from each state would be drawn each September and the lucky team would be invited to the Jack. So if you won a GC for California and there were 25 contests that year, you would have a 1 in 25 or 4% chance of being picked for California. If you won 5 contests, you would have a 5 in 25 or 20% chance. For 2012, our NorCal friends and fellow competitors Scott and Pam Hares and Adam Berns of the Too Ashamed To Name BBQ team received the lucky draw and joined SYD at the Jack.
If you are able to win 7 GCs for the qualifying period between September 1 and August 31 each year, you would be conferred with an “automatic” entry for the Lucky No. 7 which is the Jack Daniels logo. To give you an idea on how challenging it is to win seven, each year only a handful of teams, from 3 to 8, out of 5,000+ barbecue teams are able to do so. Amazingly SYD has won seven each year for 2010, 2011, and 2012. Due to various rule technicalities, we did not make the automatic in prior years. Fortunately, our persistence and consistency paid off in 2012.
Preparations to get there
When I was first notified that SYD had qualified via the automatic, it dawned upon me that this long-awaited trip would have to be carefully planned to allow sufficient time to enjoy and absorb the two main themes: the cooking contest and the Jack experience wrapped around the cooking contest. Each on its own would be an extremely busy time but when you combine the two with long distance travel and logistics, it can become overwhelming. Do you go to the Jack to cook or do you go to the Jack to enjoy the “experience”?
The cooking contest would involve cooking 7 items: Jack Daniels sauce, Cooks Choice, the four KCBS meats of chicken plus white meat, ribs, pork, brisket, and dessert.
The Jack experience includes many activities that can be overwhelming for a newbie from the moment you get there such as 1) locating your site and getting set up to cook, and decorating for the Happiest Home in the Hollow, 2) registering your team, badges, and getting your bung and coveted Jack black team banner, 3) securing advanced reservations for lunch at the legendary Mary Bobo’s Boarding House, 4) being stopped by a Southern gentleman who asks you to stick your hand into a bag, 5) meeting all your neighbors, 6) dressing up to participate in the team parade down Main Street waving your State flag in downtown Lynchburg, 7) taking the bus to Barbecue Hill to enjoy the view and enjoy the complimentary Friday team reception dinner and party followed by the ceremonial burning of “Jasper,” the Jack Daniels Benevolent Spirit of Barbecue, 8) handing out SYD swag at the Jack, 9) getting your engraved team barrel head signed by the various teams, 10) bombarded by the public wanting pictures, and 11) BBQ leftovers descended upon like hordes by the public who were salivating and watching you prep your boxes. If you add the Jack Distillery tour, shopping at the 3 story Jack General Store, Squire Mansion, team gift bags, and visiting with other teams especially the international ones, you can almost forget that you still have a contest to cook!
Part A – The Cooking Contest
The first challenge was to assemble the team as I knew that many of my 17 past and present assistant cooks since 2008 might want to go but I was constrained by the max of 6 team members including me. In the end, 9 assistant cooks decided to come with me. The 6-person rule did not turn out to be a problem for our 10-member team as the rest could come as guests as the 6-person limit was only for the team dinner on Barbecue Hill on Friday evening. Since I had team members who would be arriving later anyway, we had our full complement of six to attend the dinner.
My team mate Benny Adauto and his wife Shari drove my SYD-mobile van loaded with equipment for the 3-day 1,800 mile journey to Lynchburg. Donna and I flew into Nashville with all our frozen meats and drove a rental car to Lynchburg over an hour away. The rest of my crew flew into Huntsville, Alabama, to join the team.
The Jack event is held in Weisman Park in the quaint town of Lynchburg, Tennessee. The SYD team was situated on a grassy area adjacent to a Tennessee horse trotting oval track. It so happened that the international teams from Poland, Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, England, Germany, and Netherlands were situated in the middle of the oval track so we had an opportunity to meet many teams. From my prior cook at the Royal in Kansas City two weeks earlier, I made a tactical decision to adjust my flavor profiles for the Jack and lessen the heat to better match what I guessed the judges would be looking for. I had done better on the second day at the Royal Open versus the first day invitational so I cooked my Royal Open flavor profile.
I brought along a mini WSM which Kris Almquist from Arizona built for me last week. Kris has been building them for teams so contact him (480-516-2360) if you want one. I was running out of space on my one WSM-18 to cook chicken breasts as the Jack required white meat to be included and seven portions for the chicken turn-in box. The mini ran flawlessly and cooked the breast meat perfectly. I am considering downsizing in 2013 to this smoker in-lieu of my regular WSM-18. I also brought along my new Extreme Makeover WSM-18 my sweetheart Donna gave me for my birthday for good luck. It’s not ready for prime time yet as I’m still curing the heat resistant paint by running it at lower temps for several cycles so I used it to heat my sauces. The pimped out WSM attracted many visitors including several journalists from Europe who were eager to see if after reading about it on the Internet from my blog and Facebook posts. If the Jack was a car show, the WSM was certainly a darling of the show by the number who stopped by to photograph it!
Overall, the cook went off without a hitch and all the meats were cooked as good as I know how to cook and present them. SYD finished 27th overall with 666. 2854 points amid 87 teams with 24th chicken, 17th ribs, 48th pork, and 39th brisket. To give you an idea of how competitive it was, there were 21 teams between 660 and 675 points. SYD’s 27th place was the strongest finish among the 7 teams from Utah, California, Nevada, and Arizona.
I submitted my signature Seared Ahi Tuna w Maui Onion dish for the Cooks Choice as it was an easy dish that could be made in 15 minutes and that finished 14th out of 41 entries. I was surprised it did as well as it did as I was unsure of how raw tuna would be received in rural Tennessee.
My sauce bombed with a 74th out of 82 entries so it is back to the drawing board as I have another sauce contest next weekend on Nov 3 in Vegas. Our dessert entry looked very good but did not fare so well at 37th of 40 entries.
One of the important tips we learned was to have two persons walk the boxes to the judging tent as the thongs of public has swelled to the thousands and you needed a blocker to front your runner. Another important suggestion is to bring a cushion to sit on and warm clothing for the awards ceremony. Ours seemed to run long from 5 pm to 7:35 pm before it was done. It was my fault as I felt frozen to the bones in my shorts as temps were in the 50’s that Saturday evening.
Part B – The Jack Experience
It you think the travel, transporting your equipment, and cooking parts were busy and exhausting, you haven’t even scratched the surface of the Jack Experience part. Here is a brief synopsis:
1) Locating your site and getting set up to cook, and decorating for the Happiest Home in the Hollow – my team, headed by Donna Fong as the chief interior designer, decided on a Woodstock Hippie theme for our best booth entry. We had 70’s music blaring away, burning incense, Jimi Hendrix and Beetles posters on our walls, peace signs and buttons, and genuine lava lamp. My crew also wore their retro tie-dye team tees to complete the picture. Many thanks go to Donna and my crew for decorating our booth and to our friend Ric Gilbert of Ric’s Righteous Ribs of San Jose for loaning us the decorations.
2) Registering your team, badges, and getting your bung and coveted Jack black team banner – I received the wooden bung inscribed with the word “Auto” on it signifying that we had earned our spot at the Jack the hard way for having won seven qualifying contests versus a lottery draw for our state. The Jack banner actually looked bigger than I thought it was and I was so happy that my team mates who helped me get to the Jack were there to share the special moment when we proudly unfurled the banner.
3) Securing advanced reservations for lunch at the legendary Mary Bobo’s Boarding House – This boarding house in Lynchburg was established in 1908 and is now a Southern home cooking restaurant. Spots fill up months in advance and Donna reserved our team’s spots three months before we arrived. There are three seatings at 11 am, noon, and 1 pm and we managed to secure the 11 am seating. What is unique is not just the superb food but the hostess who sits with you and talks you through lunch with a mixture of stories, musings, and life experiences that touched each of our hearts with the sincere hospitality and charm that the South is famous for.
There are several rooms in the two-story building that have been converted into dining rooms with various names. We were assigned to the Parks Room upstairs which was formerly a boarder’s room and were all asked to introduce ourselves and tell where we were from. Our team sat with several visitors from South Africa who were at the Jack in person to purchase their own barrel of Jack Daniels whiskey to bring back to Johannesburg.
Our lunch was served family style with pork tenderloin, fried chicken, potatoes in butter, macaroni and cheese casserole, collard greens with hard boiled eggs, pinto beans with ham hocks, salsa topping for the beans, corn muffins, spiced apple, carrot cake, sweet tea, and coffee. Lynchburg is a dry county, but Miss Mary believed in using their local product in many of her recipes, so the spiced apple compote had extra “flavor” in it. We were told that whenever a recipe called for vanilla, you could do yourself well by substituting it with an equivalent amount of Jack!
Our hostess was a charming retired school teacher named Betty Ann Nutt. She cracked everyone up with stories of her life, the tradition of the Jack Daniels distillery, how the distillery came about and how Miss Mary Bobo lived until age 102 through the ages including two world wars while cooking and eating with lard, ham hocks, and Jack Daniels! It was a poignant moment to learn that World War Two German POWs were imprisoned in the Lynchburg area. These POWs were far from Germany and missed their families and children tremendously. Some of the POWs got to know and become friendly with the Lynchburg residents who worked the prison camps. Some POWs would offer their scarce gold pieces just for a moment or two to be able to hug the resident’s children because they longed and missed their own children so much being a German POW in the United States. Miss Nutt was one of those children who was hugged by the POWs.
4) Being stopped by a Southern gentleman who asks you to stick your hand into a bag – On my way back to my booth after registering my team, I was stopped by a very nice Southern gentlemen who introduced himself as the keeper of the Magic Hickory Nuts. Amazingly, he knew my name and team and told me to stick my hand into his Jack bag to pull out a magic nut. Of course, I asked him what was magical about it as it seemed like an ordinary nut. He said that I should be good to the nut and would find out soon. Very mysterious. When I got back to my booth, I asked each of my team to rub it for good luck and some did use various parts of their body to give it some good BBQ karma. When my team was not looking, I gave it a little disinfecting splash of Jack from my hotel refrigerator sized Jack bottle I had been carrying around for four years!
5) Meeting all your neighbors – Everyone was extremely friendly especially the European teams who seemed to be all fans of SYD as the TLC BBQ Pitmasters Season One was widely watched on the Internet in Europe. SYD was situated next to the Tennessee oval used for trotting horses so we had a constant stream of visitors. The Norwegian team also put on a hilarious “Air-Guitar” type show except he was doing “Air” magic with cards, rings, and sawing someone in half. Several European teams brought their media crews and one even set up a field studio outside my booth to shoot pictures of me with my new Extreme Makeover WSM-18. They seemed particularly intrigued and amused that I cooked out of one WSM. Many asked me about the SYD class I taught in London in July 2012 and I received two invitations to teach and compete in their country. Who knows, SYD may be headed to Europe in 2013!
6) Dressing up to participate in the team parade down Main Street waving your state flag in downtown Lynchburg – The Jack encourages teams to dress up and participate in the quarter mile team parade down Main Street Lynchburg. We assembled around 4:30 pm on Friday with our team banner and California flag at the main entrance to the park under the international flags. At around 5 pm, the Moore County High School marching band fired up and led the teams through downtown Lynchburg and into the Jack Daniels Visitors center where yellow school buses were waiting for us.
7) Taking the bus to Barbecue Hill to enjoy the view and enjoy the complimentary Friday team reception dinner and party followed by the ceremonial burning of “Jasper,” the Jack Daniels Benevolent Spirit of Barbecue – The yellow buses took turns to take the teams and guests up a small hill past the Jack’s distillery so your nostrils could take in the sweet odor of fermenting grain and plumes of smoke signaling the whiskey being made. On the top of the Barbecue Hill there was a gorgeous view of the Tennessee hills draped in fall colors. The Jack reception party was held in a wooden building. There was a photographer waiting to take your formal team picture before you stood in line for food.
There were two buffet lines, one for catfish and fixins, and another for pasta, lamb chops, and vegetables. There were long lines for the bar and everyone told me that the Lynchburg Lemonade was muy delicioso. The drinks included a cocktail stirrer of white plastic topped with a little statue of Jack himself which made the stirrer a collector item for the teams.
After dinner around 7:45, each team was asked to bring along a piece of paper with bad scores or unhappy BBQ experiences during the year to feed to “Jasper” for the burning of “Jasper,” the Jack’s Benevolent Spirit of Barbecue. The unhappy papers were doused with Jack and set afire at the BBQ pavilion so you could start the new barbecue season with good scores and happy thoughts.
8) Handing out SYD swag at the Jack – I had three boxes of SYD black tees and matching black tote bags shipped out to the hotel in Tullahoma we stayed at. My team gave out the tees, tote bags, and SYD buttons (by HaroldsHogWash.com) in exchange for small cash donations to Operation Homefront which is a charity that SYD has been supporting the past four years. Proceeds to go to the troops, their families, and veterans. The response was huge and we ran out of tees quickly. We were able to collect $700 for this very worthwhile charity.
9) Getting your engraved team barrel head signed by the various teams – I strongly recommend that you preorder your Jack barrel head engraved with your team name before you arrive for the contest. I collected my preordered barrel head from the Jack General Store in downtown Lynchburg and while walking back to my booth I was able to get a lot of team signatures. It was the perfect keepsake to hang over the fireplace from our Jack experience.
10) Bombarded by the public wanting pictures – My team mate from Stockton, Calif., Howard Chi was supposed to be my stand-in (we look alike) because I expected to be bombarded by the public wanting pictures. Since Howard could not make it due to a family emergency, I did my best to accommodate all the requests from the public for pictures. I now know why Johnny Triggs told me that he hires a security guard! My team did a good job dragging me back into cooking mode whenever I got distracted by my many visitors.
11) BBQ leftovers descended upon like hordes by the public who were salivating and watching you prep your boxes – Our tent did not have many walls so there was a big crowd watching me as I prepared each of the meat turn-ins. I didn’t realize I was giving a BBQ performance until the crowd burst into applause after I closed the lid for my pork box. They were previously very quiet as if watching a top golfer sink an important putt! The crowd jumped on the leftovers after each turn-in and the barbecue remnants disappeared rapidly like fresh kill in a Piranha-infested Amazon stream in the River Monsters TV series!
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I hope this gives you an idea of what it’s like to cook the Jack. I ran out of time to attend the Jack Distillery tour, visit the Squire Mansion, and shop at the 3 story Jack General Store so I have an excuse to come back next year. There is so much to do that you can almost forget that you still have a contest to cook. After spending my weekend at Lynchburg, I “get-it” and understand why the Jack is considered by many teams to be the most prestigious championship in competitive BBQ. That’s why I, like many others, will try to get more bungs into the draw again for 2013!
I’d like to thank my team who helped out including Donna, Miranda, Mimi, Benny, Shari, Wesley, Peter, Nancy, and Jeff. Many thanks also to Debbie Christian and her staff for putting on the event and KCBS officials Lori Landis, Dave Lopp, and Carolyn Wells, and to Randy Bigler for checking our meat, and to Jack’s master distiller, Jeff Arnett who handed out awards.
Thanks go out to Janet and Hank of Turbo Screen Printing for handling our printing needs. Thanks go to David Sievers my rub business partner of Soupbase.com. Thanks goes to Chris Perez of CajunBanndit.com for our cool stainless steel WSM doors. Thanks goes to MeteorBbqWare.com for donating the grill tools giveaway bags.
Thanks go out to the Pacific Northwest BBQ Society (PNWBA) for offering to help fund SYD’s trip which I asked to be converted to a charity donation for the needy.
Thanks also to my other team mates (Janice H., Rob M., David L., Brian S., Amy S., Gary N., Mark T., Peter B., Dave M.) who could not make the trip but were there in our thoughts.
A massive Thank You to my many fans who sent best wishes and supported us during this four-year journey to get to the Jack. Congratulations to all who cooked and shared the amazing experience of the Jack 2012!