They start setting up a full day before and keep watch through the night to make sure the fires stay lit. • While most people are climbing into bed, they're heaving hunks of beef brisket and pork shoulder onto heavy-duty racks caked with soot, like tar on a country road. • At the annual Pig Jam, what started as an experiment to boost tourism nine years ago has turned into a thriving annual competition with $16,500 in prize money, trophies and all-important bragging rights at stake.
Officially sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the daylong tournament that draws locally and from across the country awards prizes for pork shoulder (or pork butt), ribs, beef brisket and chicken.
More than 15,000 people and 70 barbecue teams are expected at the Saturday event at the Randy L. Larson Softball Four-Plex, 1500 S Park Road. When it first started in 2003, about 5,000 people showed.
"We do it because we like to do it. We do it because we like to compete," said Mark Poppell, an insurance salesman and barbecue aficionado who helped launch the Pig Jam with fellow Plant City resident Fred Williams. "Each year, it's gotten bigger and bigger."
The throngs who come to feast and pick up grilling tips likely are unaware of the behind-the-scenes marathon that occurs before they arrive. The competition gets serious the day before, first with the off-loading of gear: smokers, sleeping bags, tables, tents, lawn chairs, knives, tongs, cases of water and coolers packed with ice-chilled meat. Some seasoned grillers wheel up to the competition in tricked-out RVs, towing their gear behind them.
Then at 5 p.m., the judges flip open the coolers to inspect each contestant's quarry, partly to ensure the temperature inside hasn't hovered above 40 degrees but also to see no one has marinated or tenderized their meat ahead of schedule in violation of the rules.
After that, the grillers get moving: rubbing, trimming, chopping, brining and marinating.
Off to the side of their numbered grilling stations sit the smokers, some the size of VW Beetles, as well as stacks of peach wood, cherry, hickory, oak and mesquite, the selection depending on the flavors the grillers aim to infuse.
By midnight or 1 a.m., hunks of pork shoulder, butt and beef brisket get piled into the 250-degree ovens to start the 12- to 14-hour cooking process. The ribs and chicken, which don't take as long, go on the next morning.
It makes for a long, hot, exhausting and stressful 24 hours. And with the expense of entry fees, meat, wood, transportation and refreshments, the tab for a day of barbecuing can surpass $1,000, not including the cost of the smoker, itself.
Given the rigors, no one would fault Davy Miles of Plant City for sitting this one out, but that never enters his mind.
The 43-year-old car salesman cops to the event's exhausting nature, made all the more difficult because he doesn't own an RV, meaning he can either pitch a tent or catch cat naps in the back of his Dodge Nitro SUV. Grillers can arise every 2 to 3 hours to stoke the fire to keep their smokers at a constant 225 to 275 degrees.
In a previous life, Miles' smoker served as a clothing and shoe drop-off bin, the kind found in parking lots.
"It was abandoned and someone was selling the property," he said. "I bought it two weeks after the Pig Jam."
That was four years ago. He's been hooked on barbecue ever since. The smoker sits on a trailer so it can be hauled to competitions. At 7 feet high, it's too tall for the garage at his Walden Lake home, so he keeps it locked in a barn.
"It's bigger than a fridge," he said.
Miles competed in the Pig Jam once and one year served as a judge. About two years ago, he set up a Facebook page, Smokin n the boys room, named for his barbecue team, which at times has included family members and his girlfriend, Lea Anne Leitner.
In October, he took first place for ribs at the Grillin n' Chillin BBQ Competition at Lake Alfred in Polk County. Barbecuing, he said, brings out his competitive side.
"I don't know if it's the competition or just feeling tired, but you kind of get into a zone," he said. "There's almost something primal about it, something about guys and fire."
Light-hearted at first, the mood can turn serious by the time the judges start scrutinizing every nibble. The slightest variation can separate winners from runners-up.
Some grillers swear by split logs. Others use wood pellets or focus primarily on marinades and rubs. All agree on the primacy of meat selection. Miles buys his meats two to three days in advance to ensure a wide selection. Meat becomes scarce the day before the Jam. Since competing, he says, he's formed friendships with butchers at Felton's Market in Plant City.
"The first year was pretty rough on me. But the second year I went to a judge's school and learned about technique," he said. "There's a very tough field of barbecuers in this area."
Among those competing will be a quiet, 22-year-old land surveyor named Bill Tew.
Tew competed for the first time last year, borrowing a smoker from a friend. He's since acquired one of his own: an old double-door, stainless steel commercial refrigerator that he outfitted with a hopper and an auger to feed wood pellets onto a burner. He ordered the parts online. The total cost, including the fridge: $800.
"I didn't have anything else and thought it would be a little more fun to make it than buy something already made," he said. "It works pretty good compared to all the store-bought ones I've tried."
Wheels allow him to maneuver the bulky device. He uses a hydraulic lift to load it onto a truck for competitions.
Tew said he and grilling buddy Charlie Pippin, friends since they were 10, will work in shifts through the night and the arduous next day. They call themselves Holloway Heat, named for the Plant City street they live on.
"We just liked to cook and decided to do it one year," he said.
Occasionally, he hears arguments from purists who insist on split logs, but Tew says wood pellets work just as well. He opts for peach wood, cherry, mesquite and sometimes hickory pellets.
Despite the array of fuel choices and rubs and marinades, success or failure at the Jam can often hinge on timing and temperature. Cooking the meat too long can make it tough and stringy. Pull it out of the smoker too soon and it can arrive at the judges' table a few degrees below their liking. Along with flavor and texture, they're strict on presentation. Parsley is the only garnish permitted.
"The worst feeling is when you see something come back. That means there was a problem and the judges rejected it," Tew said.
So far that hasn't happened to him. Like Miles, he had planned to purchase his meats Wednesday. Last year, he waited too long and got stuck with a limited selection.
"Ninety percent of the game is trial and error," he said. "You just have to go out there and try it."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.