I've been told many a time that "grilling" is not "barbecue." Barbecue heads dedicated to one true definition of the word will never adopt a steak seared over hot coals into a family of slow-smoked briskets, no matter how much they love a medium-rare rib eye -- to do so would violate the mystique of "low and slow" barbecue culture.
That's exactly why I found it refreshing to see nineteen barbecue teams throw "low and slow" out the window in favor of quick, grill-based cooking at the seventh annual Grillin' on the Bay barbecue contest in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
Organized by barbecue fanatic Robert Fernandez and sanctioned by the New England BBQ Society, GOTB differs from most Kansas City-style competitions in its embrace of "Yankee barbecue." Deviating from the standard breakdown of pork ribs, pork shoulder, chicken and brisket, GOTB issues broader cooking categories, including the free-for-all "chef's choice" challenge.
"It's just the logistics of the city," explained Fernandez when asked how he set the rules for GOTB. Unable to obtain permits for teams to smoke their entries overnight, he took advantage of the NEBS' encouragement of custom contest categories to build a competition that wouldn't require more than five or six hours of cooking time. The result was liberation from the stringent standards of most competition 'cue.
"It's really nice to throw somethin' different in there," remarked Skip Day of Swamp Pit BBQ. "The beef category is so wide open; you can pick anything, all the way up to a prime rib." Swamp Pit's skirt steak went up against grilled chuck roast, beef ribs, beef tenderloin, and filet mignon, among other entries, in the beef contest.
Chef's choice yielded an even bigger set of dishes. Grilled salmon, tacos al pastor, bacon-wrapped oysters, and lobster newburg puff pastries were just a few of the entries that demonstrated the range of cooking at Saturday's competition.
Even in the pork rib category, several teams bucked the crowd-pleasing trend of sweet and sticky in favor of distinct and creative flavors. Brother Mark BBQ marinated their baby backs in cherry juice, vinegar, juniper berry, and cane sugar, then coated with a dry rub based in coriander, cumin, salt, and pepper.
After a few hours over charcoal and cherry wood, the ribs retained a bright, tart, and fruity accent, nicely complemented by the flavor of earthy, spicy pork and a hint of smoke. They were the bold kind of ribs a competition veteran would probably never submit to judges at a sanctioned contest. Brother Mark's crew, rooftop barbecue enthusiasts from Sunset Park and Kensington, has indeed never entered a contest outside of GOTB, a trait shared by several other teams in the running.
That isn't to say that all bets were off at the judges' table, where enthusiasts like Takedown maestro Matt Timms shared samples with certified judges. Seasoned team Ribs Within, whose intense focus on the subtleties of competition 'cue showed in their meticulous mastery of chicken legs in a styrofoam box, walked away with the grand champion trophy.
At the end of the day, what stood out most was still how loose and local this event was. As cooks passed off samples of their entries to passersby and teams cracked open beers with their friends around the grill, spectators shuffled indoors to sample batches of homemade chili and vote for a winner in the "people's choice" chili contest. Down the hall, local merchants held a flea market for their wares, and contest sponsors Sheepshead Bites blogged the day's events live.
This community-cookout feel was exactly what Robert Fernandez had in mind when he founded the contest seven years ago as a fundraiser for St. Mark School. In combining an old-fashioned fundraiser with his passion for barbecue, he and his growing list of sponsors have worked to build what he hopes will become "a major food event for South Brooklyn."
The smell of smoke on my coat says he's on the right track. As I bit into another rib, I watched Brooklynites of all stripes wander in from Avenue Z, lured by the promise that grilling season had started early in Sheepshead Bay.
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.