At least 30 barbecue teams from around the country will converge on the Tucson Sam's Club Saturday for the Arizona stop of the 2013 Sam's Club National BBQ Tour.
And while we can stroll around the parking lot inhaling all the wonderful smoky, sweet fragrances and witness the barbecue prowess of expert 'cue masters, this is serious business.
Welcome to the world of professional BBQ.
Tucson is a tournament stop on the national tour, sanctioned by the grandaddy of American BBQ, the Kansas City BBQ Society. It's the second year the competition has been held in Tucson. It was held three years ago in Gilbert, but organizers found Tucson to be a better fit.
At stake: $10,000 in prize money and a chance for the top six finishers in Tucson to move on to the regionals in Las Vegas and a shot at $25,000 in prize money. The top 10 in that contest go on to Bentonville, Ark., Sam's Club's headquarters, for a chance at $150,000.
Championship pitmaster Troy Black - winner of 11 state championships and more than 300 Top 10 awards in his 15-year professional barbecue career - directs the Sam's Club tournament. He's the guy you'll see doing some 'cue demonstrations - pulled pork, brisket and ribs are on the menu - and signing cookbooks. He's the author of "The Big Book of BBQ" and the soon-to-be-released "All Fired Up: Smokin' Hot Secrets for the South's Best BBQ".
You can't sample from the teams, which will have five hours to produce award-winning barbecue that can pass muster with the panel of sanctioned judges.
"This is the big leagues. These are the guys and gals you'll see on Food Network. They're coming out here bringing tens of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment to compete with," said Black, a 47-year-old father of two grown daughters who fell into professional barbecuing 15 years ago.
Black was on the staff of Southern Living magazine when he was sent on assignment to cover a barbecue contest.
"I had been cooking BBQ all my life, and I didn't know that there was a competitive world out there," said the Athens, Ala., native who lives in Nashville. "I started competing as a hobby. Got really good at it and started competing in 30 to 35 contests a year as a hobby and started winning a lot."
His success convinced him he could do it for a living, so he quit his day job and got his former employer Southern Living to sponsor him. He also got sponsorships from Chevy Trucks, Kikkoman, Heinz 57 and others.
"I was the first guy to get sponsorships to compete full time," he said. "Sort of like a Nascar driver."
These days, though, he has no time to compete. Black spends 31 weekends a year as paid talent for the Sam's Club tour, criss-crossing the country for the competitions and demonstrations at the warehouse club outlets.
During a conversation from a tour stop at a Sam's Club in New Mexico, we asked Black the burning questions every aspiring barbecuer wants to know.
• The keys to great barbecue: "The quality of meat you start with is the most important thing. Secondly, is the seasonings you are applying, such as your dry rubs. Thirdly is knowing what temperature you're cooking and maintaining that temperature. That's very important. Built-in thermometers don't give you an actual reading so I use a little, cheap oven thermometer and set it on the grate where my meat's going to go to understand what temperature I'm cooking at. And fourth, don't overdo the sauce. Barbecue isn't about the sauce: It's about the meat. Let your sauce be an accompaniment, but not overpower the meat you've worked so hard and so long to cook."
Gas, charcoal or wood: "It depends on the cooker. A Weber kettle does great with charcoal. I use gas for convenience on my deck to cook a steak. Gas is illegal on the pro barbecue circuit."
Wood preference: "I primarily use fruit woods, cherry and apple. I don't use hickory. Hickory is pretty strong for a long, slow cook. I never, ever use mesquite because it's way too strong. Mesquite is used for grilled fish, a grilled piece of chicken. Something that you're going to cook fast. Oak is really good. Pecan is really good. And smoking wood is readily available at sporting goods stores, your big-box stores like Walmart. They've all got smoking wood in their grilling departments."
• Worst barbecue nightmare: "About 10 years ago I was in Tennessee and right before I was going to put my chicken on, about two hours before turn-in, I discovered that my chicken was spoiled. This was a really big money contest, $50,000 being given out, and I was vying for team of the year nationally. So I literally had to run to the grocery store and throw the chicken on. Ended up winning first place chicken that day, somehow. But that was a disaster in the making. It was really bad."
• Tip for avoiding scorching the hair on your arms while barbecuing: "I use a long pair of tongs."
• Perfect setting to barbecue: "On my deck. Because barbecue to me is not just the food, the act of cooking. It's about spending time with friends and family and a cold beverage."
Sweet & Spicy Chicken Sauce
Makes: 2 cups of marinade
• 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
• 1/4 cup soy sauce
• 1/4 cup honey
• 3 green onions, thinly sliced
• 1 tablespoon rosemary, freshly chopped or 1 tsp. dried
• 2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and stir frequently. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Serve warm as a sauce or allow to cool and use as a marinade.
Eastern Carolina Vinegar Sauce for Pork
Makes: 1 1/2 cups of marinade
• 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
• 1 cup apple cider vinegar
• 1/4 cup apple juice
• 2 tablespoons brown sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon paprika
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan, stir and bring to a boil. Can be used as a baste for ribs or served over pulled pork at room temperature.
Seafood Marinade with a Kick
Makes: 3/4 cup of marinade
• 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
• 3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
• 1/2 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, or to taste.
Combine all ingredients in a plastic zip-top bag and mix well. You can marinate seafood in the bag for 1-2 hours and grill.
If you go
• What: 2013 Sam's Club National BBQ Tour.
• When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.
• Where: Sam's Club, 4701 N. Stone Ave.
• Cost: Free.
• Details: kcbs.us/samstour
• Oil your grill to keep food from sticking.
• Use the highest quality meat available.
• Trim the fat to prevent flare-ups. But keep a quarter-inch of fat to retain the flavor.
• For smoky flavor, place pre-soaked wood chips in a foil package with air holes onto the flame beneath your grill grate.
• To keep grilled veggies crisp, cook on the outer edges of the grill, not directly over the flame.
• Allow your grilled steaks and meats to rest a few minutes on the plate so that they reabsorb their natural juices.
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at firstname.lastname@example.org