The New Jersey championship is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which Shenkus described as the "NFL of barbecue." The winning team is allowed to advance to the American Royal, or the Super Bowl of barbecue competitions, held in Kansas City in October. The event is free to the public and run by the Anglesea Volunteer Fire Company, part of the North Wildwood Fire Department.
Shenkus said he attributes the success of New Jersey barbecue to the melting pot of flavors and traditions on the East Coast. In Texas, it's a smoky flavor. In Carolina it's a vinegar-based sauce, and in Kansas City, the finger-licking-good coating is tomato-based. Of the 68 competing teams, 36 were from New Jersey, Shenkus said.
"You get the barbecue, you get the blues, we're at the beach. It's the classic summer event," Shenkus said.
Tents, grills, smokers and trailers filled a parking lot at the edge of the beach for the competition, with teams working through the night and sleeping on site. Teams, typically ranging from two to 10 members, were judged in categories of chicken, pork, ribs, and brisket, and competed for a $10,000 prize and an invitation to return next year.
It was also the first year the grand champion winner would become eligible for the World Food Championships in Las Vegas in November.
Finn's Finest BBQ from Middletown, Del., took the title of grand champion and more than $3,000 in collective winnings, Finn's first big win since joining competitive barbecuing three years ago. Husband and wife Megan and Brian Ferguson started barbecuing with Megan's aunt's team, Rub Me Tender, before forming the team, named after their son, Finn, now 2.
After accepting their award, the couple was surrounded by fellow barbecue teams offering congratulations.
"This is family. This is what we look forward to from December to March," Megan Ferguson said of coming to barbecue events.
She said they would like to go into barbecue professionally, but for now they will keep their jobs – she in advertising and marketing, and he in carpentry. Other teams have been able to make the leap to the professional barbecue business.
After becoming rookies of the year during their inaugural 2007 season of competition, Steve Raab and his wife, Loren, left their jobs in insurance and finance to focus on barbecue full time with friend Eric Keating. Then known as Fat Angel, they won the New Jersey competition in 2009 and 2011. Their catering business opened in 2008 and they opened Local Smoke restaurants in Cookstown and Neptune last year.
"I was always kind of a carnivore, but I never really expected to be a professional barbecuer," said Raab, 34. Local Smoke placed ninth in this year's competition.
While a competition, the atmosphere is laid back and fun, said Raab. The competing teams are friends he only sees a few times a year, he said. Before the judging began at noon, opponents could be seen talking - and even sharing spices.
Local Smoke's tent was located next to Philly Pigs, a team founded by a group of five buddies from Villanova University who entered their first competition in 1994. Jim Boggs, of Lumberton, started the team with his brother, Mike, after seeing the National Capital Barbecue Battle in Washington in 1993.
The team now has 10 members, including a lawyer, a mortgage broker, and a construction company owner. Boggs was a financial consultant for 20 years before his barbecue hobby turning into a paying job.
"Once you get a trophy for a barbecue competition, you're hooked," he said. Philly Pigs won the New Jersey competition in 2006 and 2007.
More than 100 judges were on hand, sitting in teams of six chosen at random to sample the food. They were expected to eat approximately four pounds of barbecue each to assess appearance, taste and tenderness.
It's serious business. The KCBS-certified judges were required to raise their right hands and swear an oath to objective judging and their duty "so that truth, justice, excellence in barbecue and the American way of life may be strengthened and preserved forever."
Judges must be at least 16 and, like many of the competitors, are driven to attend the competition simply for a love of barbecue.
Stuart Gordon, 57, of Havertown, is in his fifth year of judging the New Jersey championship. Gordon is director of hip and knee replacement at Cooper University Hospital and said his patients call him the "barbecue doctor."
It was Gordon's brother, Solvin, who encouraged him to take up judging competitive barbecue, which he calls "real barbecue." The two were in Wildwood together, although rules do not allow family members to judge on the same team. Other rules preclude drinking anything but water, smoking or using scented hand wipes.
"I love to eat barbecue," Stuart Gordon said. "It gives me goose bumps to eat good, good ribs."
A barbecue sampler
Philly Pigs BBQ 5 Beans
1 can each (15.5oz.) beans: kidney, pink, white, pinto and black.
1 medium red onion - chopped
½ c ketchup
½ c brown mustard
¼ c Worcestershire sauce
¾ c Sweet Baby Rays BBQ sauce
¼ c molasses
¾ c dark brown sugar
¾ c cane syrup (Alaga or Steen's)
1 t granulated garlic
2 T BBQ dry rub
6 maple breakfast sausages (raw)
1 medium granny smith apple (reserve for end)
Mix all ingredients in an aluminum half pan (13" x 10" approx.)
(Sausage should be taken out of skins and separated into marble-sized pieces.)
Bake at 350 degrees for 90 minutes.
Add chopped apples.
Bake 15 more minutes.
Philly Pigs Grilled Pineapple Upside Down Cake
2 ripe pineapples
1 box yellow cake mix (plus ingredients needed to complete mix)
1 stick butter
6 oz. pure maple syrup
6 oz. dark rum
One foil half steam pan. (These are standard pans found in most markets, measuring 10" x 13" and 2.5" deep.)
3 foil cigars (Made by using foil crunched up to about 1 inch in diameter and 10 inches long.)
Pam spray or equivalent
Heat grill to medium-high.
Twist pineapple crowns from fruit.
Cut pineapple in half from the top, cut halves into quarters.
Cut core piece from the top of the wedge of each quarter.
Cut rind away from each quarter. The best way to do this is using a sharp filet knife, cut under fruit, slightly bending knife to follow the curve of the rind. Remove any brown eyes that remain on fruit quarter.
Spray fruit with Pam spray.
Grill fruit quarters until brown. Mix rum and maple syrup, brush on fruit during last five minutes of grilling. You will only need six quarters for cake so the remaining two quarters can be eaten. Try grinding fresh black pepper on and slice. Cool remaining fruit.
Mix cake according to directions.
Melt stick of butter in foil half pan.
Chop cooled pineapple (medium chop); mix with butter in foil pan.
Heat grill to high.
Place a piece of foil on grill surface that will extend past sides of cake pan (bigger than 10" x 13"). Use more than one piece if needed. You are creating a heat baffle so heat will come around foil and not be directly under cake pan.
Take foil cigars and place them on top of grill surface foil. Spread them out so they will support cake pan off of grill surface. Make sure cigars will allow cake to remain level.
Pour cake batter on top of chopped pineapple in pan. Spread out as evenly as possible. Cover with foil.
Place cake pan on foil cigars and close grill lid. Each grill is different, so cake will need to be checked after 25-30 minutes. Just open grill and pull back foil from corner and see if batter is still liquid. Cake normally will cook from outside edge in. Use long toothpick or bamboo skewer to check for doneness. It can take over an hour to complete. After you have determined cake is finished, remove to cutting board.
Allow cake to set for 5 to 10 minutes.
Put hot gloves on and hold sides of pan. Lift up and flip pan over in one smooth motion onto final serving board. You can either remove foil top or leave on for the flipping. Just be careful not to serve any foil with the pieces you cut.
Vanilla ice cream goes great with the hot cake.
Tabasco Tropical Storm BBQ Sauce
Created by Jim Boggs, pit boss, Tabasco Philly Pigs BBQ Team
1 lg. vidalia onion (chopped)
1 pineapple (skinned & chopped)
1 head garlic (chopped)
¾ cup fresh ginger (skinned and chopped)
4 med. tomatoes (chopped)
2 T. Tabasco Habanero Pepper Sauce
1 cup honey
1.5 cup apple juice
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup ketchup
½ t. poultry seasoning
1 t. dried thyme
1 t. Tabasco seasoned salt
Saute onion, pineapple, garlic, ginger and tomatoes in the butter until soft.
Add remaining ingredients, simmer on low heat for 45 minutes.
Puree sauce in the pot with a stick blender.
Simmer an additional 15 minutes.
Strain sauce and serve.
Contact Dara McBride at 215-854-2703 or firstname.lastname@example.org.