As a veteran pitmaster, I’ve heard my fair share of stories about audacious rookie competitors. When Donna told me about this one, I blurted out, “She’s the ballsiest student I’ve ever had!” How so? 1) You take a barbecue class from me as a total newbie who never cooked before, 2) leave your two young kids in the care of your husband, 3) rent a van and drive by yourself from Nevada to North San Diego, 5) compete in your very first sanctioned 4 meat contest alone, 6) forget to bring the cover of your WSM-22, 7) cook your very first KCBS contest and make all four entries, and 8) cook extra 20 racks of ribs and an extra brisket to sell for People Choice.
Preface – A Brave Pitmaster named Melissa by Donna Fong, Butchers Daughter BBQ
As part of my journey towards my KCBS Master BBQ Judge certification, I judged Valley Center, California on June 7, 2014. My good friend, Tammy Ginos of When Pigs Fly BBQ, told me she met a one-woman team the day before and thought that I should meet really meet and encourage her.
Tammy said her name was Melissa. Given the fact that I started on this smoking journey to encourage other women to do the same, I asked for some directions and made a straight dash for Melissa’s site after judging. When I arrived, Melissa was turned away from me, working on some ribs in the smoker so I said hi to her neighbor and a former Slap Yo’ Daddy alumni, Mike Brady of Smoke Hound BBQ. Mike has been tearing it up lately on the contest circuit. I remember him doing well at Long Beach and though I didn’t know it then, he was about to take 1st place in brisket that day.
After I was done talking with Mike, I turned around and called out Melissa’s name. To my surprise, her face was instantly familiar as she is also a Slap Yo’ Daddy alumni. Melissa had taken Harry’s class in April 2014. At the time, she ditched her husband and kids to learn about BBQ. Mind you, Melissa is from Henderson, Nevada so the effort she took to even get to the class was not on a whim. I dare say that about one out of every five classes, we will get a female student who isn’t there with her husband or Dad. These women are always motivated from the start and Melissa was just that way.
Melissa paid attention to every detail, asked plenty of questions and laughed at all of Harry’s jokes. I also remember very distinctly that she expressed sadness when the class was over, which I’ve never seen a student vocally display. Melissa is a tiny thing, very pretty and has an open heart. Even after a few post-class email exchanges where she planned on visiting Harry at the Sam’s regional contest in Vegas, I had no clue that she was thinking about competing.
Imagine my surprise when the woman wearing a bright pink tank top turned around and greeted me. I couldn’t believe it. I was agape in amazement. Before my first contest, I spent years judging professional BBQ, taking BBQ pro cooking classes and spent months methodically practicing.
By the time I took Harry’s class, I knew most of the material. How Melissa had the chutzpah to go out on her own, pack up a big white van, drive 5 hours southwest to Southern California, all on her own; I don’t know. But I knew I admired her in a way that pushed her up in the 99% bracket of super cool people I know. Having packed the same kind of van and driven 9 hours from Alameda to Lake Havasu, Arizona, on my first contest, I knew what she just went through. Even so, with much less experience, two small kids and her small frame, there’s no way I would have tried.
No one ever talks about how physically and mentally exhausting contests are but they are. So when Melissa started tearing up, so did I. It was a proud moment because I consider her one of our students and knew how stressful it is. Her story is one about victory and most of all, courage. If you lack the courage to do something, read her letter and find a little bravery in your own heart.
My very first contest by Melissa Brimmer of Beeps Bodacious BBQ
Holding my first turn in box for chicken, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. All four meats had turned out abysmally in my opinion, but Kelly, the KCBS rep, had reiterated, “Just get all four in on time!” I knew I had made so many mistakes at every step for each meat. I was just so nervous!
First, a catalog of mistakes – for chicken: I had accidentally put too much salt in the brine and had let it soak too long, I didn’t take the time to choose as perfectly rectangular thighs as I could find across multiple packages and had over-trimmed the excess skin (when it cooked, it shrank back too much, exposing the meat).
For brisket, my injection spilled in the cooler (it was in a pop-top style Rubbermaid container – from now on, plastic screw-top containers only) and I misjudged the overnight/early morning cooking conditions. I’m in Vegas where the lows now at night are a dry 75 degrees and the daytime highs are a very dry 105. Valley Center, CA was a moist 50 degrees at night, had very dewy mornings (literally pools of water from dew collected in the drink holders of the cooler lids) and daytime highs of 85. Poor brisket never got the chance to finish breaking down all the way. As you can imagine, pork butt had the same problem, despite that it was a small one. Ironically, although I hadn’t injected the brisket, I used the Harry-Donna trick of pencil-thick slicing the meat and then gently dipping each slice in the drippings I did accumulate (one judge commented, “good moisture.”) The internal temps of brisket and pork were only 150 and 160 by turn in time – way too low, but slightly probe-tender.
Ribs should have been OK, but the one smoker I had was already crowded with all four competition meats (since brisket and pork hadn’t finished on time) and an additional 8 racks of ribs for the People’s Choice Taste of BBQ. They ended up being slightly tougher than usual and I put two slightly fatty ribs into the box (I happen to like a little fat, but apparently that was not well-received by the judges).
There is so much irony involved in competitions and judging. I felt I deserved 4’s for chicken, 5’s for brisket and pork and 6’s for ribs, possibly slightly higher scores for appearance (since I knew my meats were terrible, I at least tried to make them look fantastic with lush verdant parsley and lettuce). I ended up with the full range of 6 – 9 for each meat category across all three criteria (appearance, taste and tenderness). One judge’s comment card said my brisket appearance was sloppy, but another judge rated it a 9. The chicken thighs I thought were inedible rated 5 – 9 for taste. Some judge out there loves salty chicken thighs! I ended up scoring mostly 7’s and 8’s across the board. A result I thought was higher than I deserved and placed me 31st out of 32. There was only a 14% point difference between 1st and 32nd. (In school, it’s the equivalent of getting an 86 out of 100 on a test, but being ranked 2nd to last in the class). Basically, I was “good” out of the “best”. I’ll take it!!!
Of note, it was really tough being a one-person team on the first try. By the time you’re a pro, like Donna or Harry, it’s no problem, but for the uninitiated, it’s a little stressful. If I’m doing a competition alone again, I would do the following: get there on Thursday so I can take my time to set up (I’m a 5’ 6”, 125 lb female and the equipment is heavy!), be more organized in my set-up and processes and most of all, don’t sell anything at PC beyond competition leftovers (or more likely, take the leftovers home to eat and don’t do PC at all).
With that said though, I must admit I loved doing PC. I also made about a 17% profit (I bought everything from the supermarket – I may switch to Restaurant Depot or Costco to improve that profitability %). I ended up selling out 20 racks of baby backs (almost 300 ribs) and a 10 lb brisket in only three hours that were not even peak meal times. Alone. In the heat. On one backyard-sized smoker. <post-editorial comment by Harry, “I would never consider cooking 20 racks of ribs alone AND compete in a KCBS contest on one offset backyard smoker. I take my hat and shoe off to Melissa . . . twice!>
I admit when Donna came by for a friendly hello, the dam finally broke and I cried just a little, mostly out of exhaustion and disappointment because I knew I could have done better in the competition. I distinctly remember wishing I could leave with her. A hug at the right moment goes a long way – thanks, Donna!
Anyway, I hope this helps you and just know I am rooting for you!! Good luck!!!