Tracey Nahrwold fired up the smoker, worked her special rub into an 11-pound pork butt and 12-pound brisket, and set about practicing for this weekend’s third state barbecue championship competition at Freedom RV.
It was a recent Tuesday night in her quiet little Sahuarita cul-de-sac, where the neighbors are used to Nahrwold and her Fork U BBQ teammate Tracy Santa Cruz setting up a pair of competition-quality Yoder Smokers in their driveway and filling the neighborhood with the sweet perfume of smoked meat.
But this practice session was a little more intense, with a little more at stake: On Saturday, Team Tracies, as the folks at competition sponsor AZBarbeque like to call them, will go for their third grand champion title at Freedom RV’s 13th Annual Hometown BBQ Throwdown. The behemoth RV dealership has hosted its festival 13 years but has had the competition only three years.
“To do a three-peat is very hard and very rare,” says AZBarbecue President Michael J. Reimann. “Not that they can’t do it, because it’s been done before. But they’ve definitely got their work cut out for them.”
There will be as many as 33 teams competing — three of them so-called all-star teams comprising champion pit masters from inside and outside Arizona put together by contest organizers. And they will all bring their A-game; the contest is a qualifying event for national barbecue competitions including the prestigious Jack Daniels contest in Kentucky, held in October.
The Jack, as it is often called, is the Super Bowl of American competition barbecue. If you get there, you have arrived.
Fork U BBQ got there last October — with only two years of competition under their grill.
“No way in a million years did we think we’d get it,” Nahrwold said.
Then again, she also never pictured herself as a competitive barbecuer.
I’ll take that dare
Nahrwold entered her first barbecue competition on a dare. She was bartending at JW Starr Pass Resort & Spa in 2010 when the resort launched its Catalina Barbecue Co. & Sports Bar. The chef threw out the idea of a barbecue contest, and a co-worker at the resort dared her to enter, which was not as strange as it sounds. Nahrwold, 49, is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale and cooked for years on cruise ships and as a private chef before repetitive motion damage in her hand derailed her.
She took the challenge and won first place for her ribs. The competition was exciting and creative; she was hooked.
She didn’t start competing in earnest, though, until 2012. She had a few solid finishes, including placing third in the pork category in the Northern Arizona Barbecue Festival and first in ribs at the 2012 Sam’s Club National BBQ Tour, held in Tucson. Both events are sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which awards competitors points for every top-10 finish. The points determine your national ranking; Nahrwold said she is now ranked No. 401 in the country. She’d like to be in the top 100.
Two make UP a teAm
Santa Cruz and Nahrwold joined forces in June 2012. They had met a year earlier when Nahrwold ordered pastries from Santa Cruz, a 44-year-old mother of two who had established a name for herself in Tucson as the owner of and baker for the popular food truck Pin Up Pastries.
Like Nahrwold, Santa Cruz thinks outside the oven when it comes to her business. Her inventive treats, served from a bright fuchsia FJ Cruiser and matching trailer decorated with cupcakes and a 1940s-era pinup girl, skew the ordinary. Among her tantalizing best-sellers are salted caramel whoopee pies, pretzel-crusted brownies, maple-bacon cupcakes, and chocolate chip and potato chip cookies.
Under the name Fork U BBQ — their tag line is “The devil made me ’que it” — the pair started entering competitions together as the only all-female team in Arizona. Nahrwold is the pit master; Santa Cruz is her assistant and biggest cheerleader. In their first year together, they did a handful of competitions riding high on Nahrwold’s Grand Championship win at the Freedom RV event when she was still flying solo. Last year they returned to Freedom RV and took a second straight Grand Champion title. The year included eight sanctioned competitions in Show Low, New Mexico, California and Nevada.
Their wins qualified them for a shot at the prestigious Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational BBQ. They and nine other Arizona teams were entered into a drawing using whiskey barrel bungs — the corks used to seal the tasting hole on top of a barrel. At the drawing, the unthinkable happened: They were picked.
“There were a lot of people who were jealous,” Santa Cruz said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
At the competition in Lynchburg, Tenn., late last October, Fork U BBQ placed 48th out of 102 teams.
“We were (one of) the best-finishing teams in Arizona in the last three years, so we were really happy,” Nahrwold said.
The Jack opened the door for the pair to compete last November in the second annual World Food Championships in Las Vegas. They finished fifth in the dessert category.
But can they three-peat?
It’s just before 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, about 12 hours after Nahrwold put the pork butt and brisket in the smoker. She pulls the beef off the mesquite smoke and sets it on a thick paper place mat on a table in the garage.
The brisket’s bark is a deep shade of brown, and as she cuts in it, it gives way to a fingernail-thick red smoke line.
The meat is butter-tender and juicy with a rich flavor that goes down to the center where Nahrwold infused a marinade.
The pork butt pulls apart with ease. It, too, is juicy with deep, smoky hues and just a hint of fat.
Nahrwold pours a splash of barbecue sauce onto the paper and dredges a fingerful of pork through it. But the meat is good enough to stand alone.
In addition to the pork and brisket, Nahrwold has a pan of burnt ends — the tender, juicy, fatty trimmings from the brisket — that have been stewing in a pan of sauce until the flavor is richly concentrated; and a rack of ribs that she slathers every few minutes with a sweet-and-slightly-spicy sauce cut with a habanero apple jelly that creates a sugary crust.
“When you go to a restaurant, you expect the ribs to fall off the bone,” Nahrwold explained as she cut off a rib and offered it to a guest. “But in competition, the ribs need to stick to the bones or they will dock you points.”
Barbecue competitions are not financial boons. Most pay a couple of hundred dollars for the top finisher. Freedom RV’s contest is better, with an $800 prize for the grand champion.
Santa Cruz estimates it costs them about $1,000 per competition when you add the cost of the meat and travel expenses.
And there are no guarantees or secret formulas to winning.
“I think that’s what keeps most of us going is that we never know what is going to happen,” Nahrwold said. “It’s a crap shoot.”
But it’s not about the money for Fork U BBQ. They are in it to be the best.
“You’re either going to be zero or a hero,” Nahrwold said, mimicking something she overheard at a competition. “I would love to win Freedom RV again. ... To win it three years in a row would be amazing.”