If there were a Miss Congeniality of the competitive barbecue circuit, Mama Mary would take the title.
Last year, she earned the Spirit of BBQ award at the Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle, an honor given to the cook who has the best attitude during the annual D.C. festival.
Early Saturday morning, Mama Mary was in the hunt to be named the top winner of the two-day affair. She fired up her $7,000 cast-iron barrel grill, a behemoth she affectionately calls “Bertha.”
“We aren’t even worried,” she said, patting Bertha’s top as the smoke billowed.
A block down Pennsylvania Avenue, the titans of the contest, including 75-year-old Johnny Trigg, occupied “Celebrity Row.” Over time, “Mr. Trigg” has learned to accept the ups and downs of these events.
“It’s like going fishing. Some people start panicking when they lose,” said Trigg, of Alvarado, Tex. “If you’ve got a good recipe, it’s good forever. Stick with it.”
Down the row, some had emblazoned shirts that looked fit for a NASCAR race crew. Others had their faces plastered on trailers. Many had been fixtures on TV specials dedicated to the nation’s top pitmasters.
Was Mama Mary intimidated? Not at all.
“I think I have a great chance,” she said.
The 22nd annual contest has special categories for pork shoulder, chicken, brisket, pork ribs and sauces, complete with a litany of rules. The heavyweights of the competitive circuit approach these events with military-like precision, following a detailed timeline with down-to-the-minute instructions for marinating, grilling and garnishing.
Even the jaunt to the scorer’s tent is a strategic event, mapped out to ensure that the dish doesn’t get cold before it hits the judge’s palate.
Mama Mary’s real name is Mary B. Simon. But everyone calls her Mama Mary. The 55-year-old, who lives in Waldorf, Md., holds down a day job as a program manager for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“I’ve been cooking since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” she said. The Southern saying is popular in her hometown of Boardman, N.C.
In North Carolina, she learned the skills of the trade from her father, the Rev. Walter Lee Brown Sr. Her family barbecue sauce is a modified Carolina style with a vinegar base, punctuated by a punch of red pepper that kicks in after a few seconds. Don’t dare ask her for the ingredients.
“If I tell you, I’ll have to put you on a skewer and put you on the grill,” she said, laughing.
According to her family tradition, the barbecue recipes would be passed down by generation, but only one member of each generation would know the recipes.
One of nine children, Mama Mary earned her father’s trust to be the next keeper of the recipes.
“He told me, ‘You can’t write it down . . . it’s here,’ ” she said, pointing to her head.
Several years later, in 2000, her father and mother, Mary Alease Brown, were killed by intruders who broke into their home.
“It was a rough time for me,” she said. “But I’m going to keep it going. Dad’s looking down on me here today.”
More than 40 teams joined Mama Mary to compete in the festival. They gathered at 8 a.m. Saturday, many fighting yawns while chugging coffee, to go over the rules of the competition.
The Kansas City Barbecue Society serves as the so-called cops of the competitive circuit. For example, the art of garnishing meat has a subset of rules. Parsley and iceberg lettuce, sans the core, are okay, but kale and red-tipped lettuces are a no-no. Pitmasters use the garnishes to elevate their barbecue on a bed of greens, giving the meat some height and visual appeal.
“It’s the difference of a photo with or without a frame,” said John Busch, 72, of Richmond, who helps oversee the contest. As a member of the “Porkitects” team, he was a two-time champion in the 1990s.
Early in the morning, Scott Iwanowski, a judge from San Diego, prepared for a long weekend ahead. He was scheduled to judge multiple rounds of barbecue entries, stopping only to cleanse his palate with water and crackers. The gig requires a big stomach and bigger appetite, although he knows few people would have any sympathy for his plight.
“Come Sunday night, I’m done,” he said. “No more barbecue.”