Spring Fever contest in Austin, Part 5
By Donna Fong
In 2009, I was transitioning from being a BBQ judge to becoming a BBQ competition cook. I just didn’t know it yet. It took me two years to figure it out. I know it sounds funny now, but that’s what really happened.
I was already separated and finally divorced from my ex-husband who took all the skills he learned from Paul Kirk and the off-set smoker from the marriage. I had no BBQ skills so I took a cooking class sponsored by the CBBQA. The instructors were all from the California BBQ Hall of Fame. At the time, there were only 6 members and Kim Walton was the only woman inducted. Even though it was a competition class and not suited to what I wanted to learn, I took it because it fit my schedule and my judging buddy was willing to drive down to Anaheim with me.
Kim Walton and her husband, Brent Walton, were legendary on the California BBQ circuit. QN4U based out of Clovis, CA, won the CBBQA Team of the Year from 2004 to 2007, which was twice as many consecutive years as anyone else. That includes Dueling Bubbas, Rhythm ‘n QUE, Slap Yo’ Daddy and Left Coast Q, all of which won two years in a row. But to dominate as Kim and Brent did, was something else. Brent passed away almost three years ago and with him went a great deal of our history and leadership.
Though there were other women who were already blazing the BBQ trail like Eva Harris of Rib Doctor/Rare Breed and Kathy Murphy of Ranch Hands BBQ, neither dominated for as long nor as unquestionably as QN4U dominated on the circuit. So when Kim showed up in Austin to cheer us on, I was thrilled. One of the big reasons why I started competing was because there were no women solo cooks on the California circuit and frankly, I thought that was nonsense.
The elongated turn-in format for IBCA made for an easier, if not somewhat impatient, day. And the fact that Cindy carries half of what I carry, also made cleanup easier too. I told Cindy that it is a tradition for the head cook to walk in the brisket entry as a sign of respect and pride. So Cindy and I walked to turn-ins and handed our entry to Serena, the head judge and IBCA representative. As rules require, she opened the box to check for any errors and dismissed us. Satisfied with our work, we congratulated ourselves.
On our way out, two of the organizers from the VFW, were standing at the door. I made sure to thank them for having us at their contest and told them how much we enjoyed ourselves. They shared a few stories, as the last few boxes came in the door. We walked back and started cleaning up. Soon enough Kim showed up and it was hugs all around. She looked great, as good as I have ever seen her. Familiar with the routine, she asked what needed to be done. Cindy said a few words and the three of cleaned faster than you could imagine. Three bottles of Shiner were opened and we started socializing again. Cindy introduced Kim to Troy, Ernest and Robert, making sure each one understood the honor that was being bestowed upon them. I nodded in agreement. Good stories were told, ones that I’ll always remember.
It was time for awards. I grabbed a bottle of Harley Goerlitz’s rub and looked for this legendary Texas pitmaster in the audience. Cindy had pointed him out a day earlier during the cook’s meeting so we stood in line to meet him that Friday night. When you’re famous, there’s always a line of people who want to talk to you. Harley is a tall man who wore a white cowboy hat. Even though he had no idea who I was, he was as kind and modest as one could be. He’s one of the winningest pitmasters in Texas and I found out later, a big crowd favorite. I looked for the white hat in the crowd and crouched down, asking Harley to sign my lucky bottle of his rub. I thanked him, as man behind him affectionately poked his hat the whole time.
The awards hall was huge and suddenly, I felt the size of the contest. I sat down with Cindy, Kim and Troy. Kim held the raffle tickets. Each ticket has a matching ticket with the same number on it. If you were called, you either won a raffle prize or a category. We had five tickets. One of them was for a raffle and the rest of the tickets were for our entries in cook’s choice, chicken, ribs and brisket. Only the top ten winners were called in each category.
Head judge, Serena, would simply read off the numbers for the winners in 11th to 20th place. But no one actually knows who has won what. Serena only knows what ticket number won what categories. It makes for a somewhat awkward ceremony as each number is called but no team name. You gotta know who is who. Winners in each category are given 1-10 points, with 10 given to the 1st place winner. The GC is the person with the highest cumulative score of those who walked. If a tie breaker is required, the winner is the one who scored higher in brisket. It is Texas, after all.
I will say that when Harley won 7th place in Cook’s Choice, the crowd roared for him. There was no doubt in my mind that he is a beloved man in Texas. Among other heavy weights there was Craig Sharry of Texas Pepper Jelly, Danny Patton of One Man Pits, Ronnie Wade of Blazen BBQ and Justin Margist of Dr. Smoke. I can’t remember all of the names, especially since they weren’t announced, but I was told that with the exception of a few, most of the big names in Texas were there. I even caught a glimpse of Robin Myers of Lady M&M Smokers whose been appearing in the NBBQA newspaper a lot lately.
Ron McDavid, the Commander of Post 8787, welcomed us to the annual “Chilly” Chili & BBQ Cook-off. We pledged our allegiance to the Flag and raffled some items off to benefit the local Boy Scout unit among others. The Boy Scouts raffled off a shot gun which was held by an officer at the front. Then they auctioned a beautiful quilt of the American flag, which I regretted not knowing about. I made a quilt once and the effort was so great that I won’t do it again until I retire.
When they started calling the winners of the ribs category, Troy who was sitting on my right, tapped his left hand on my leg and leaned in, and said “Guess who just won?” It was him!
In the end, we didn’t take any walks but our numbers were called twice by Serena for chicken and cook’s choice. They were early calls so likely in the 12th spot or so. It can be hard to suit the tastes of the judges in any particular area but we were proud of our cook. The RGC went to Blake Stoltz of Blastpit BBQ and the GC went to Tim Balch of Balch’s Blazin BBQ. I walked over and shook Blake’s and Tim’s hand for a job well done. As I exited, I walked with Belinda Cervantes and then Robert Sierra, who had just done the same. Robert is a good cook and a good sport too. He shrugged his shoulders a bit and said he guesses he didn’t please the judges’ palate. I asked Belinda how many of these she does a year and she said about two a month. That’s seemed like a lot.
Cindy, Kim and I returned to our cook site in the dark. Cindy held out a can of Pringles with only a few broken crumbs at the bottom. None of us hesitated to take our share of the last bits, knowing it’d be a few hours before we ate anything decent. I loved that moment. Three women who knew what it felt like to win; a bit disappointed at our performance but still tough. We just ate some chips and moved on. There’ll be other contests. For now, we wanted to find our hotel and get cleaned up before we spent the night listening to Texas Honky Tonk played by legend, Rosie Flores at Poodie’s Hilltop Roadhouse Bar & Grill in Spicewood.
While driving these two greats that night, I learned a bit about more them and about myself. Cindy believes that you must cook honestly and behave honorably at all times. In her book, respecting those that contribute to your opportunities matters, and it should matter a lot. If anyone behaves badly, Cindy will spend the rest of the night apologizing for something she didn’t do. It matters that much to her. It’s one of Cindy’s coolest qualities.
Kim on the other hand is a totally different person. Her presence is so strong, it generally strikes fear and respect, all at the same time. Kim’s got this movie star quality to her. Maybe it has something to do with her smoking. For all of the medical repercussions you risk, I’ll admit it’s still sexy. Kim can hold a cigarette and toss her hair back in such a way that it is undeniably poignant and glamorous. If I did the same thing, I’d look like a hooked fish flopping on the sandy shore.
There is something fundamentally strong and yet vulnerable about Kim. She’s quiet, unlike Cindy. And even though she doesn’t say much, I know Kim still misses Brent. It’s easy to see. But she’s as unshakable a person as I’ve ever met; man or woman. And she’s fiercely independent, which I am not.
Even so, despite how different we all are, the three of us had a great time that night. We are old enough to understand ourselves and appreciate what the other had to offer. We are all fierce in our own way. I’m pretty certain that Austin hasn’t seen the last of me just yet.