I did and we will. This was the 25th anniversary of Murphysboro, Illinois’s barbecue cook-off, Praise the Lard. One of the very few duo-sanctioned, Kansas City Barbecue Society and Memphis Barbecue Network, barbecue cook-offs; a very prestigious event.
Photo: Sky Full of Bacon
I have been to Murphysboro many times and if you know me, you likely know Amy and Mike Mills are close friends of ours as well as two of the biggest and best names in barbecue. This would be our second year cooking in Murphysboro and as always, wanting to do our best.
Our competition team Duce’s Wild was led by, you guessed it, Duce Raymond and Ron Nunes and also included our Wood Dale pitmaster John Bovinette and our executive chef Dylan Lipe— two darned good barbecue men themselves. Having done the event last year we felt we were ready to add Whole Hog to our cook; one large addition to what we cooked last year, accepting the challenge of cooking all seven meats in the duo-sanctioned event.
That was the plan, this is what actually happened.
Just like last year one of our key guy’s wife was having a baby. This year, the day before the cook-off, Dana Cox-Lipe gave birth to a healthy 8 lb. 8 oz. baby boy, Aydan Lipe. Additionally, it was Duce’s daughter Emma’s one year birthday the day of the cook. So we had a minor change in plans. Knowing what a tough cook it would be we added John for our cook, but now that Dylan would be out we wisely choose not to cook the whole hog without him.
Up Friday morning at the crack of dawn, final loading, and we pulled out of Wood Dale at 5:30am pulling our cooking trailer with another truck pulling our smokers. No problems getting to Murphysboro, a six and a half hour drive hauling our trailers, excitement and enthusiasm ruling the day. Seventy four teams, many very strong and experienced teams, the most teams ever at the Murphysboro cook-off all aiming at the prestige, twenty-five thousand dollars in prize money and the coveted and beautiful hand-blown glass trophies. Did I mention we were lucky enough to earn two Apples last year? One for first place shoulder in KCBS and one for second place whole shoulder in MBN.
Photo: Sky Full of Bacon
Our first challenge occurred as soon as we arrived— how to get our equipment up over the angled cooking location we had been assigned. A forklift with a ball cock mounted on it quickly made short work of relocating our trailers thanks to, and thank you, Jr. and 17th street pitmaster Phillip. We were quickly on track and ready to go.
Unloading our equipment, supplies and food, setting up our area and checking our lists were all accomplished without incident, and it was a beautiful day to boot. This is also the time to meet old friends and make new ones. I love to see our friends and it is inevitable that we meet and make new friends. That is a very important part of barbecue and the only reason I personally am part of competition barbecue.
Checking our timeline everything was in order. Ron went to the cooks meeting at 4:30pm and we were ready to start cooking. Having the benefits of a catering kitchen and professional chef, a fair amount of our prep was done ahead of time, but there was still much to be done on site. We were motivated and on track. Daytime came and went and everyone got sleep while we cooked through the night except Duce, who only got in a couple of hours due to his added responsibility without Dylan and nervous energy, knowing he would be making our verbal presentations on the Memphis side of the competition. The presentations included three 10-12 minute extensive explanations of the food as well as the tasting process, held at our well decorated and very clean and pristine serving table, complete with serving pieces and linens from our catering division, indoor-outdoor carpeting, and décor and ambience— compliments of the feminine sides of Chefs Duce and Dylan.
I went to sleep early in a two-man tent, got up for a while at 2:00am and had a little quiet time talking with Duce who was keeping temperature on our smokers and still prepping for the big day that was now upon us. As I went back to bed around 2:30am Ron was preparing the blind boxes for KCBS, a tedious process of snipping and placing lettuce then parsley in a Styrofoam box that looks like a putting green when he is done. I got up again at 6:00am and things were in full swing. There had been big crowds of people and lots of music and fun well into the evening, now it was time to take care of business.
We felt good. Chicken turn in was at 10:00am and we were turning in boneless chicken thighs, boneless thigh meat stuffed into a tube of chicken skin and shaped and molded to look like a tube, and chicken lollipops, chicken drumsticks trimmed and cut in the shape of a lollipop. Our elaborate process would set us apart from our competition, we hoped. We cooked our chicken in rectangular muffin pans to help keep the shape and to hold a liquid solution of mostly butter to help keep our chicken most, tender, flavorful and tasty for the judges.
It was crunch time and the next four hours would end up being some of the most stressful time I, and we, have spent in barbecue. It was just after chicken turn in that we got the sense things were moving fast and we had not brought enough manpower to do the job like we wanted and needed to. Every cooking event has its own set of challenges and it’s fair to say that a duo event has at least twice as many challenges. That is a big part of what makes Praise the Lard such an excellent but tough competition. What happened next is still kind of a blur, and it only happened yesterday.
Next up was the KCBS pork turn in and three consecutive MBN presentations, back-to-back 15 minutes apart. In opening and closing our smokers, our slow cooking at 208-216 degrees had left our meat undercooked. We were pushing, cooking faster and hotter, when we should have been holding, done cooking and waiting to serve or turn in our product.
It turned into a game changer and heartbreaker and ultimately a real character builder for Chef Duce and our whole team. Without Chef Dylan, Duce had the responsibility of most of the planning and a lot of the executing including the presenting, oh, and did I mention that this was Chef Duce’s first MBN and he had never presented before? Which is not to say that Ron and John were not busting their butts, as well they most certainly were. The point is the pressure was mounting and Duce felt it was all on him (incorrect but hard to feel otherwise). His timeline was falling apart and he had to do the presentations knowing that our food was not where we wanted it to be, but he was still tasked with talking to and selling the judges on the notion that our barbecue was award-winning barbecue.
I saw it all happening before me. The pressure mounting, I saw all three of our guys squinting, sweating, pushing when we should have been holding, working feverishly to keep things from falling apart at the seams. We had talked with Dylan a few times and used his input, but there was no time to call him or anyone else. I am telling you straight out: it felt like the weight of the world was on our shoulders, and double or triple that for my nephew Duce. With the pressure mounting by the second and sleep deprivation setting in, it was very difficult for me to see my nephew and our team in such dire straits, and we still had rib and brisket turn ins for KCBS and three ribs presentations to get through. Things were tenuous at best, gloom and doom was in the air. More than once I whispered in Duces’s ear that this was a real challenge and character builder for sure and he had to keep it together and lead us and get us through the cook. I knew it then and it is just as true now. It’s hard to comprehend the pressures, self-imposed or not, that Duce was under, and I truly hurt for him. At that point I could not have cared less about the competition, I was only concerned with my nephew and to a lesser degree the team.
We pushed on and kept doing our best, and I remember saying a couple of quick prayers. Duce made his first ever MBN barbecue presentation and it went well. Duce excels at talking about barbecue and being the face of Sweet Baby Ray’s and has much experience in talking on the radio and television so we expected him to do well, but when your food is not how you want it to be, and knowing that he had 5 more presentations to go, the pressure was flat out there. Made it through pork and we were on to ribs. Things were becoming more difficult not easier; the ribs were not done how we wanted them either, and this led to the most pressure you can have in barbecue— being disqualified for not turning in our meat on time. This has never happened to us and rarely happens in competitions, and in this event it nearly happened to us with pork, ribs and brisket. We were a mess and the pressure was as acute as could be.
What happened next was a game changer for us. Mike Mills drove up in his golf cart and I knew from television and last year that if you make the finals in MBN Mike comes around in the golf cart and tells you and then you have to do one more on site judging, this time with four judges at one time. We knew he did not come to tell us anything. But to all of our amazement— he did, we had made finals in whole shoulder and we could not believe it. We had heard stories for years about teams that had not won with their best stuff but had in the direst of circumstances, but it had never happened to us.
Well that changed our attitude in a hurry and despair was replaced by hope and optimism and that, to be sure, is an understatement. Everything else was still in play. We still had undercooked meat and not enough help but the adrenaline took care of all of that. There was a big change of attitude in all of us and it showed the most in the tone of voice in Duce’s presentations, and once again hope and optimism ruled the day. I myself felt God’s hand was on our shoulders for sure, just as I did a couple of weeks ago when we were at the Best of the West in Sparks, Nevada. We had made it through the most difficult time, but we still had two more rib presentations and now another pork presentation to do. Once again my friend Mike Mills showed up in his golf cart to announce the rib finalists. As he turned around and came toward us he kept on going, and with a twinkle in his eye and a knowing smile on his face he looked at us and said, “nope” and as I maintained eye contact with him he quickly said a second time with the same twinkle and same smile, “nope”. We all got a great laugh out of him and us. Very subtle and very sublime, I knew once again the measure of the man and the depth and breadth of Mr. Mike Mills— experience and perspective. For twenty-five years Mike has been taking those rides and bringing lot of joy to teams and also lots of reality as well. It was Mike’s way, like only he could, of being proud of us and offering encouragement, but also helping us to understand that we should be happy being out there cooking and doing what we love and not be so prideful, in particular when cooking in such a stellar field. Mike would not be the only guy who shared that valuable lesson with us that day in Murphysboro.
We knew we did not have our best cook but we were still in the hunt. It was ours to lose. We had made the top three in whole shoulder in MBN and that is a very respectable accomplishment in itself. We knew and I reiterated to Duce that we had a chance to talk ourselves into a better place instead of just turning in a box of meat and being at the judges mercy. We gave it our best shot, we did what we could do, we had the energy, Duce gave his best presentation of the day and we were spent and exhausted. It was now 4:15pm and the awards ceremony was to start at 6:00pm, it was time for clean up and load out.
Have I mentioned that Duce and Ron were scheduled to leave at 1:00pm?
Ron had another cooking event, not barbecue related, he had to prepare for and Duce wanted to be home for his daughter’s first birthday. Like I said, we were exhausted and all out of gas and once again the guys from 17th street came through for us. Jr. and Phillip, the pitmaster’s cousin, came by and helped us pack and load our trailers and forklift our trailers back onto the street. It was now 5:50pm and in spite of Duce’s promise to his wife and Ron’s cooking event they stuck around for the awards, knowing from the scuttlebutt that we would not win whole pork shoulder.
Well, we were right. We did not win whole pork shoulder, nor did we come in second, we did come in third. And knowing the strong field and the adversity we fought through, and the character lessons learned, we were indeed proud. Maybe not pleased, but proud as proud can be. The rest of our scores fairly reflected the struggles we had and some obstacles we overcame.
Photo: Sky Full of Bacon
Before I give you the results I would like to say this is competition barbecue at its finest. I am sure many teams had many of our same struggles to overcome as well as many more that can happen at any time. I am very proud to know the teams and have a great understanding of the sacrifice and effort that goes into every cook-off, every time. To give you a small perspective, one of our judges had just judged in their 182 event. I concluded that the cookers were not the only ones who know good barbecue when they taste it. I must also say how great it was that all of the MBN judges came by and talked to us about our scores. This is very meaningful in terms of us assessing our own efforts and helping us get better going forward. The judge who had just judged her 182nd contest had given us a perfect 10 on our shoulder and had excellent things to say about Chef Duce and our team’s future.
Final Results 2012 Praise the Lard 25th Anniversary Cook-Off in Murphysboro, IL
Whole Pork Shoulder 3rd place out of 20 teams
Ribs 6th place
Whole hog DNP
Chicken 30th out of 54 teams
Ribs 8th place
Pork Butt 41st place
Brisket 16th place
Rank 23rd out of 62 teams
Calls 8th place ribs
3rd place whole shoulder
Prizes One hand-blown beautiful glass apple
Check for $750.00
Overall experience PRICELESS
We left Murphysboro and headed for home at 7:30pm and arrived back in Wood Dale, Sunday Morning at 2:00am a little older and a little wiser, 40-something hours after we left.
Thanks to everyone on our team and a very big I could not be more proud of you and I love you to my nephew, Chef Duce.
Photo: Sky Full of Bacon