WARNING: Smoking Can Thrill!

For some, outdoor cooking means more than sticking a few ribs on the grill and hoping for the best -- it's an art form with serious bragging rights at stake.

Do you find yourself counting the hours until the next time you can fire up your outdoor grill or smoker? Do you rework your favorite “go to” grilling menu while sitting in traffic? Do you have a poster of Bobby Flay hanging on your patio? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you’re not alone.

Summertime is peak outdoor grilling season — time to put on the apron, find the long tongs, pour a cold beverage and put your best grilling techniques to work.

Outdoor cooking is not only fun, it’s also big business. Despite — and perhaps partly because of — a lagging economy, nearly 15 million charcoal, gas and electric barbecue grills and smokers were shipped in North America in 2011, according to the 2012 State of the Industry Report published by the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.

“We’ve seen a strong shift toward lower price point grills for the last couple of years and a strong growth in interest in charcoal grills,” notes Tom Parks, vice president and general manager of COASTROAD Hearth & Patio Supply Company in Shallotte, N.C. “The ‘cocooning’ trend has helped us, first because post-9/11 travel was difficult. Now, because people are having a tough time selling their homes, they’re fixing up stuff that previously drove them nuts. Americans can’t just sit there and not spend money . . . it’s not, well, American.”

And the future could be smokin’, too. According to a study by The Freedonia Group, U.S. demand for outdoor furniture and grill products is expected to increase four percent annually to almost $7 billion in 2015. What will drive the growth? An expected rebound in the housing market, coupled with the continued popularity of outdoor rooms and home entertaining.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

Whether your budget is hot dog or something a little more gourmet, one of the main reasons outdoor cooking remains popular is because anyone can enjoy it. From the ubiquitous round black Weber charcoal grill, to gas grills, to high-end ceramic cookers, to full-on outdoor kitchens, there’s something for everyone. Even heads of state are into it: when British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife recently visited the United States, President and Mrs. Obama, as is tradition, gave them a gift — this time, a wood and charcoal-burning combination griller/smoker.

GENTLEMEN (AND LADIES), START YOUR SMOKERS!

Somewhere along the way, bragging rights for the best ribs on the block morphed into something far more organized and competitive. Year round, in fairgrounds, parks and other meeting places across the country, you will find teams of grillers competing for the best pork shoulder, ribs and chicken. The premier events are overseen by one of several barbecue sanctioning bodies, which include the Kansas City Barbecue Society and the Memphis Barbecue Network.

“The competitions are really a great mix of all kinds of people,” observes Heather Sinyard, who organizes both the Apple Blossom BBQ Festival in Cornelia, Ga. and the Hillbilly Hog BBQ Throwdown in Cleveland, Ga. Sinyard says that while about one-third of the professional teams participating in the events have a BBQ restaurant or catering business, the bulk of the entrants are just BBQ enthusiasts, with a diverse range of jobs and backgrounds. The prize money isn’t too shabby either, often in the thousands of dollars. “The money is important to many cook teams,” Sinyard notes, “but the bragging rights are, too.”

So, whether you just enjoy having some friends over on a Sunday night to grill out, or you are in it to win it, rest assured you are in very good company.

THE THRILL OF THE GRILL

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Last summer, out by the pool in the backyard of a friend’s home, I participated in my first barbecue competition. My ribs earned a second-place ribbon. Granted there were only four competitors in the field, but no matter — I was hooked. I decided to up my game and look for more serious competitions.

In October, I entered the “backyard” division of the National BBQ Cup in Cumming, Ga. I expected to be competing against six or seven other novices. Instead, I found myself going head-to-head against 38 other backyard teams. Some 90 pro teams from all across the eastern United States were also represented.

Early that Friday evening, full of excitement and anticipation, I pulled in to the fairgrounds with nothing more than my Weber Smokey Mountain smoker (think R2-D2), a cooler of ribs and chicken, and a lawn chair in the back of my SUV. I’m not easily intimidated, but when I parked between two pro teams setting up their RVs with trailers, temperature-controlled cookers, countless gadgets and sponsorship banners, I seriously considered turning around and heading home. However, by then it was time to start prepping the meat (no advance marinade or rub is allowed), so I got down to work and soon forgot about my obvious inadequacies.

What I didn’t previously know about these events is that the “turn-in” time can be at an unusual hour. In this particular competition, I had to turn in my ribs at 8:30 a.m. and my chicken at 9:00 a.m. That meant I was up all night, tending to my smoker. I very quickly discovered that October nights can be very cold and windy in north Georgia!

The most exciting part of the competition was the 30 minutes prior to “turn-in” — lots of last-minute preparation to make six ribs sitting in a white Styrofoam takeout container look as beautiful, and taste as delicious, as possible. And there are plenty of elaborate rules (great for a lawyer): whether you can use garnish in your container and, if so, what kind; whether you are permitted to let sauce “pool” in your container; and so on — which vary depending on which organization sponsors the event. Turn in your meat even one minute late, and you are disqualified. I loved watching grown men and women delivering their Styrofoam containers — the contents of which represented an entire night’s labor of love — to the judges’ station with the level of care typically reserved for carrying fine china or a ticking time bomb.

I have a litigation colleague who says, “There are three ways a case is tried: the way you plan for it, the way it actually happens, and the way you wish it had happened.” The same goes for competitive cooking. My ribs were dry, and my chicken needed a little oomph. I didn’t win, but I didn’t come in last either. Most importantly, I had survived.

Next up was the Apple Blossom BBQ Festival in April in Cornelia, Ga. My ribs were better this time around, but I tried something new with the chicken. Let’s just say that, in light of my scores, I won’t be doing that again! The great thing about the competitions, as many of the pros will tell you, is that the judges’ taste buds are very fickle. So, even though there are teams that consistently place near the top, any team can win on any given Saturday.

I’m taking the summer off from competition to sharpen my techniques, perfect my recipes and ponder my strategies. Come fall, those other backyard teams better watch out!

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