Anyone who has ever barbecued for any length of time is all too familiar with unpredictability. Sometimes ribs come off the grill perfectly sienna-hued, glistening and tender. Other times, they’re black, dry and tough.
The 20th anniversary of the Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle is now history, and let history record that the outcome was as unpredictable as barbecuing itself. The grand champion (a.k.a., winner) of the weekend event had competed eight times in the battle and had never placed higher than 11th.
This year, the Firefighting BBQ Team, led by retired D.C. firefighter Mike Skahill, took home the trophy, besting 38 others, including Jack’s Old South, which placed fourth led by Georgian celebrity pitmaster and three-time world champion Myron Mixon. Skahill also beat out a two-time Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue winner from Texas named Johnny Trigg, whose team, Smokin’ Triggers, came in third. (Trigg, who had never competed at the Safeway battle before, took first place in the categories of pork and brisket, the latter fitting for the Texan, given the meat’s iconic stature in the Lone Star State.)
Grand champions are based on point totals from four individual categories: pork, pork ribs, beef brisket and chicken. The Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) oversees the judging and scoring. (The battle hosts other contests, all by sponsors, such as the National Pork Board and Perdue, but they don’t count toward the KCBS national rankings.)
The defending 2011 champions, Washington-based Pork Barrel BBQ (which had parlayed its cook-off successes into a lucrative sauce-and-seasoning company and, with two partners, an eponymous restaurant in Alexandria) suffered a hard fall from its lofty perch, coming in ninth overall. Pork Barrel also didn’t place in the top 5 in any category.
The Firefighters were aided this year by Lee Ann Whippen, a longtime competitor who once defeated Bobby Flay in a barbecue “Throwdown!” and who had gained fame on the “BBQ Pitmasters.” Whippen founded Wood Chicks BBQ, a team-cum-restaurant/catering business in Chesapeake, Va. Two years ago, she opened Chicago q in the Windy City.
Skahill befriended Whippen at a Maryland competition in 2006 after praising her cooking. During a recent phone conversation, Whippen told Skahill that she was returning to Chesapeake to take her competition equipment up to Chicago, where she now lives. Skahill suggested she add a couple of days to her travel schedule and compete with him at the Safeway battle, a contest she had never entered. Whippen took him up on it.
The two collaborated on recipes and cooking methods. They cooked his and hers briskets. She uses a different injection, a different rub and cooks at a higher temperature than Skahill. A teammate, upon tasting Whippen’s brisket, flipped out. “‘Oh my God,’” Skahill recalls him saying. “‘You have got to taste this.’ When I heard that reaction, I knew which one we had to enter [in competition].” Whippen’s brisket took third place.
Whippen, who was washing dishes when we talked, helped in another important way: timing. In competition, a team must turn in a sample of food at a specific time. When she noticed that the pork box wasn’t ready and there were only five minutes to get it rushed up the street to the judges’ table, she took charge. “Get out of the way and let me just do this,” she yelled. The box made it in time.
In addition to winning money, a trophy and bragging rights, the Firefighting team gets an automatic invitation to compete in two of the nation’s most prestigious contests, the American Royal’s World Series of Barbecue and the Jack Daniel’s contest.
The second-place KCBS winner (called a reserve champion) constituted, in some ways, an even bigger surprise than the Firefighting BBQ triumph. The team’s name accurately describes it: Burning Hot Unknowns.
The team competes only four to six times a year (many compete 20 times or more). It has no sponsorships, as the big-dog teams do. It doesn’t own a huge bus or a comfortable trailer, although it did rent an RV for the occasion. Its members do not wear customized logo-embroidered shirts. The whole team, in fact, is basically one guy, Craig Lyjak.
Lyjak, who lives in Boston, was accompanied by a friend and her 6-year-old son. He had competed at the battle twice before, but never had a showing remotely like this one.
I caught up with him around 2:30 Saturday morning, as he was trimming brisket in his cramped, messy kitchen. A self-described hobbyist, the 36-year-old seemed to just enjoy being part of the contest.
“That’s what’s cool about a competition,” he said. “You’re competing against the best.” He added: “You never know.”
And so you don’t.
Another local makes good. Kit Rudd’s DeGuello BBQ won first place at Swinetastic. (Hey, I don’t make these names up, I just report ‘em.) In the process, he earned the team an invitation to compete at the American Royal contest and is eligible for selection to the Jack Daniel’s contest.
“Pitmasters” finale. Don’t miss the last episode of this season’s “BBQ Pitmasters” on Destination America on Sunday, July 1. It has been a good season, and the winners from previous contests go head to head for the $50,000 prize.