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Feature - Artful carnage

A guide to the low temperatures, high seasoning and holy smoke of this weekend's Canadian National Barbeque Championships

By G.D. Maxwell

The three-day weekend upon us is the only quintessentially Canadian holiday we celebrate. Known as Simcoe Day in Ontario, the uninspiringly named civic holiday in most of the rest of the country, and universally called simply the August long weekend, it celebrates nothing. Well, summer, which is so fleeting and well-deserved in most of the country it is truly worthy of celebration.

For three days, Canadians will chase as much summer livin’ as they can. Beaches and cottages across the country will reverberate with high-wattage antics and power relaxation. Cities will bristle with festivals and celebrations. Whistler will... well, every day’s a holiday in Whistler. But in a town with more than its fair share of events devoted to the sybaritic lifestyle, this holiday weekend marks a turning point.

This year, the August long weekend in Whistler is the pits. Barbeque pits. Sweet smellin’, fire-breathin’, food of the Gods, barbeque pits.

For the first of what organizers hope will be many years, Whistler is the site of this year’s Canadian National Barbeque Championships. The scene at Dusty’s will be one of artful carnage. Be forewarned: There’s nothing in the rest of this story – and nothing this weekend at Dusty’s – suitable for consumption by vegetarians.

What you will find though, if you take a trip down to Whistler’s original side, Creekside, will be up to 20 teams of meatheads laying down a pall of smoke that smells so good it’ll buckle your knees. You’ll also see one of the most bizarre collections of outdoor cooking apparatuses you’ve ever encountered, everything from compact R2D2-looking Webers, to the 12’ Klose pit generally anchored to Dusty’s upstairs patio, to slick, mag-wheeled, trailered pits, some defying description.

Teams from Canada and the US will be there vying for ribbons and bragging rights and an invitation to the pinnacle of barbequedom, the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbeque in Lynchburg, Tennessee, where they’ll dream of becoming the best of the best, the undisputed – at least until next year – champion barbequers on planet Earth.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Memories of Barbeques Past

In a barbeque-challenged country, the Canadian Championship is the work of David and Pat Veljacic. David, an avid meat smoker and, ironically, firefighter from Vancouver, started the competition in 1987 with his wife. It was a labour of love and like many such events, it wouldn’t have happened at all if it weren’t for the Herculean efforts the founders put in to it.

Shortly after the competition in 2000, David lost the love of his life when Pat died. Broken in spirit and suffering himself from cancer, David spoke with Paul Street and Tony Wayland about bringing the championships to Whistler. Paul and Tony, the driving spirits behind Dusty’s rebirth as a barbeque joint, were keen on the idea but the logistics couldn’t be worked out for 2001.

David muddled through 2001, published the third and last of his successful barbeque cookbooks – In a Flash: Fast and Fabulous Barbecue Meals from the Fire Chef – and succumbed to his own illness last fall. Paul and Tony, with the help of Kathy Monk, Dusty’s pitmistress, stepped into the fray and organized this year’s event. David and Pat’s spirit, and a special memorial trophy honouring their long service, will infuse the gathering in its new home.

So let’s see, there will be cookin’ and tastin’ and judgin’, but what’s this event all about? The Canadian Nationals, dubbed Slo ’n’ Lo, will be about serious barbeque. For the uninitiated, what the competitors think of as barbeque and what most people think of as barbeque have little in common. That burger or steak or chop you throw on your propane appliance at home is not barbeque; it’s grilling. Nothing wrong with that and you can feel free to invite me over for a taste any time you care to, but it ain’t barbeque.

Barbeque – whether you spell it with a "c", a "q" or simply BBQ – is about unfriendly cuts of meat, low temperatures, high seasoning, lots of smoke, love and tall tales. In competition, it’s also about presentation and eye appeal. You can spend all night and half a day cooking with care but one slip with a dull knife and you might as well toss it all in the nearest garbage can... or give it to me.

Competitors will go head to head in four categories. Brisket, butt, ribs and chicken. Final registration and meat inspection – don’t even go there – is 4 p.m. Saturday and you can expect the first briskets and butts to hit the fire sometime around 9 p.m. Judging will begin around 11 a.m. Sunday and, most important, PUBLIC TASTING will commence around the same time. Teams at this level of competition cook way more meat than they need to submit, hoping one cut will turn out superior to the others. What the judges don’t get, we do. Do not, under any circumstances, come late and expect there will be anything more substantial than a lingering smell in the air for you to consume. What gets put out for public consumption disappears faster than political promises. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves again.

Where’s the Beef?

For the competitors, this event began a long time ago. Maybe it started the first time they ever tasted real barbeque, or the first time they ever had to eat what passes for it in most restaurants after they’d tasted real barbeque. Most restaurants – at least most of them north of the Mason-Dixon line – lack the skill, the equipment and the time to make real barbeque. They cheat. They parboil their ribs and finish them in the oven, smothered with bottled sauce.

"The only time you boil ribs is if you're going to make rib soup" is how David Veljacic explained it when asked about the practice.

Once bitten by the bug, barbeque athletes – don’t laugh – spend years training, painstakingly documenting their successes and failures, learning what they can about pits, concocting rubs in the best spirit of mad scientists, blending smoke from different woods the way a few gifted Scots blend their eponymous whisky, honing their skills and their knives, putting their health and well-being at risk to elevate their art and take their tastebuds where meat alone won’t lead them.

To the competitors, we salute you.

But back to the meat.

First on the fire will be brisket. Brisket comes from cows’ chest muscles, cow pecs if you will. Whole brisket consists of two pieces, a leaner chunk recognizable as its most frequent end produce, corned beef, and a much fattier top cap. There are several hundred horrible ways to cook brisket and damn few good ways. That’s why almost no one outside of Texas cooks brisket on a regular basis. But done properly, sliced brisket is a passable meat and more importantly, chopped brisket generously seasoned with extra rub and a fine, thin sauce, is the premiere ingredient in chopped beef sandwiches. Chopped beef sandwiches are the finest thing a brisket can aspire to and if you’ve ever eaten one, you can never be completely happy with a hamburger again.

Bob Lyon, who heads up the Pacific Northwest Barbeque Association – under whose rules and auspices this competition is being held – says, "Every brisket is an adventure." Bob and his wife, the core of the famed Beaver Castors cooking team, will be competing this weekend. His brisket strategy encompasses three tactics: choosing a "good" brisket, using the right technique and cooking several, hoping at least one will be a show stopper.

I won’t go into the elements of choosing a good brisket but if you want a tiny peak into just how esoteric and weird this nonsense gets, consider this. There is a school of thought among barbequers that the left brisket, that is to say the cow’s left, is the more tender. It has to do with most bovines being right-hoofed – I’m not making this up – and the muscle underlying the left side being less developed and therefore, less tough.

So carefully chosen, painstakingly rubbed with a blend of salt, sugar and spice so secret court action has been commenced to keep it that way, briskets will be started late Saturday night and cooked anywhere from 10 to 16 hours at a temperature between 200° and 225°F. Since most competitors will follow Bob’s admonition about cooking more than one, your chance of tasting brisket is pretty high.

Not too long after, pork butts will start to cook. For reasons known only to antiquity and a butcher in Boston, the top part of a pig’s shoulder is referred to as a butt. None of the explanations I’ve ever heard for why this is so are appropriate for a family newsmagazine. Accept it and move on.

Butts are generally in the 8-10 pound neighbourhood, are comprised of upwards of half a dozen muscles, a fair amount of connective tissue, one of the most convoluted bones in a pig’s body and enough fat to be self-basting. Like most meat on a swine, butt cooked well is delicious. Butt well barbequed is sublime. Butt well barbequed and caressingly pulled – deconstructed fibre by fibre – and deftly sauced is delicious enough to tempt an orthodox rabbi.

Is This the Day the Teddy Bears Have Their Picnic?

Both the big cuts will be cooking pretty much all night Saturday. The aroma of several hundred pounds of cow and swine being slow smoked over charcoal fires stoked with aromatic woods will be enough to drive the folks staying at nearby Legends crazy.

Imagine what it’ll do to the bears.

"I’d rather parachute into Afghanistan than have to deal with bear mitigation during this thing," said Arthur DeJong, Whistler-Blackcomb’s mountain-environment-bear liaison manager. The short strokes are being worked out as I write, but expect some or all of the following: temporary fences, powerful lights, perimeter personnel, bear bangers, sacrificial lambs. I have a very distinct picture in my mind of the bears massing outside the fence just before false dawn. "They can’t get all of us," Yogi explains. "And if we pull this off, we eat like kings."

Assuming the bears haven’t taken over the pits by morning, ribs will go on about the time most of us are finishing our second cup of coffee. Ribs – pork, of course – are what most of us think of when we think about barbeque at all. Ribs are fussy food, fussy to eat, fussy to cook. They are also the food most often violated by faux barbeque restaurants with a penchant for large pots of boiling water. A pox on their houses.

Competition ribs are fussed over like a sick child. Their inside membrane is painstakingly stripped off lest the finished product bite back when the judges test for tenderness. They are rubbed and rubbed again. They are turned and mopped and spritzed with concoctions ranging from pure apple juice to elaborate blends of sweets and acids to impart flavour and produce a come hither glow of a licked-lip beauty contestant. The ribs cooked in competition are, without a doubt, better than any ribs you’ve ever had in your life. A commercial venture would go bankrupt lavishing the time and attention competitors lard on their ribs.

"Rib meat should pull cleanly off the bone," Bob Lyon explained a couple of years ago when he was trying to teach me to judge barbeque. "It shouldn’t fall off the bone and heaven forbid, it shouldn’t stick to it either." As a card-carrying judge, my own opinion is that ribs should make your mouth happy to be alive and your tummy wish there were twice as many as there ever are. None of us will ever live long enough to eat all the ribs we’d like to.

The final category is chicken. In some ways, it presents the most variables for competitors. They can send the judges perfect slices of breast meat, juicy thigh meat, or maybe some tarted up little drumstick joint of wings. Chicken doesn’t have the cachet of the other cuts and suffers from over-familiarity. I would be happy to spearhead a movement to replace it with venison, salmon or lamb. Chicken’s chicken. Cluck ol’ hen, cluck all day.

When the Veljacics held the championships, there was a chili cookoff as an adjunct to the real competition. This year, there will be an open burger competition held on Sunday. Open to anyone with a grill and spatula, the Bullseye Backyard BBQ Burger Contest’s title just about says it all. For a $20 entry fee, you too can vie for Whistler’s Best Burger.

The rules are simple. Bring your own grill and $20. Everything else, including the burger, is provided. The only stipulation is Bullseye sauce has to either be in or on your burger. Sounds like corporate sponsorship, eh?

But the prizes are substantial. While the pros are going for the glory, the burgermeisters are playing for real money. $500 for best burger, $200 for second best and a single brown bill for third.

And who will be the saddest boy not in town this weekend. That’d be me. A certified barbeque judge and a mean burger flipper but instead of gorging, I’ll be paddling the foreign-tongued Bowron Lakes this weekend.

More’s the pity.