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It takes a lot of practice and a lot of prayer to make sure slow-cooked barbecue comes out just perfect for competition, said a nervous Cody Cline, whose team, Nervous Wreck, will compete in this weekend's Smoke On The Mountain state barbecue competition in downtown Galax.
Barbecue teams will battle this Friday and Saturday for the handmade banjo trophy and a chance to enter the 2010 “Memphis In May” World Championship in Tennessee.
With a fitting team name, Cline said he's as worried as always, even after years of competing.
He's just hoping that the flavor and the presentation of the meat will impress the 40 professional judges from around the country as he and his teammate compete against 20 others.
Last year, Cline and teammate Mark Davis, both of Galax, beat out world champs and won the “Anything Butt” division with their beef brisket.
(That category is for any smoked food item other than the traditional pork.)
This will make the fourth Smoke on the Mountain competition for the team. Nervous Wreck will compete again in the shoulder, ribs and “Anything Butt” categories.
“We've done a lot of cooking,” said Cline, of their preparation for the competition. “But we haven't changed anything, as far as ingredients. Like they say 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'”
Instead of making any changes this year, Cline and Davis have hand-picked every piece of meat from the Mount Airy Meat Center that will go into their cooker for the competition. And Cline spent last week cooking at home, trying out the applewood and hickory he'll be using to put a full-flavor taste in the meat for this weekend's competition.
Since May, Cline and Davis have planned for Smoke On The Mountain, creating a checklist to make sure everything goes just so. Teams are judged on taste, texture and tenderness, as well as presentation.
“The big things will take care of themselves,” Cline said. “It's the little bitty things you got to worry about, like making sure the tents are in place and you have the wood you need. You don't want to get down there at the last minute and have things go wrong.”
Weather has a major effect on the cooking of the meat, he said. For example, when it rains, some think that the meat will cool off. Instead, the humidity goes up, causing the temperature to rise. The teams will have to compensate for that.
Cline and Davis have run a barbecue catering service together for a couple of years and now own Squealer's Cafe at The Crossroads Institute in Galax. Achieving the same texture, tenderness and taste for the competition is no different than the catering business.
However, in catering, they always know what their clients want before the big event, and if something should go wrong, they have time to fix it.
But here, “the competition is all night long and you have to turn in what you got by in the morning,” he said. “You have no room for error.”
He's nervous just thinking about the upcoming competition, as his team will again face off against the most experienced of professional cooks on the national barbecue cook-off circuit.
“I love to cook, but I don't care for the competition,” he said. “It's just a way to be around the [high] caliber of cooks.”
To be around cooking legends is just a surreal experience for Cline and Davis. “But we don't go down there to make fools of ourselves, either,” he said. “We do it right.”
And besides, he said, competing just gives the team more experience for their catering and cafe businesses, as well as for next year's competition.
“We just do what comes natural,” Cline said. “You just have to pay attention and have to be patient.”
Patience — that's the key ingredient to preparing the best barbecue, said Cline as he and Davis plan to sit by the cooker waiting for the pork shoulders to smoke for 16 hours and ribs for seven.
“You can't fire up your cooker and walk around because you have to check your meat every 30 minutes, even if you're out there for hours,” he said.
Cline, who has been cooking since he was a young boy, said he still considers himself new to the world of barbecue. “We learn something different each year,” he said, and is looking forward to the judges' input this year and watching other professional teams.
But Nervous Wreck has just as “good a shot” as anybody, he said.
“We're not concerned about our product,” said Cline. “We provide our best each year.”
Joining the Smoke On The Mountain competition for the fourth year is Mountain Grillas, which has entered ribs and “Anything Butt” categories this year.
Down two this year from the usual four-member team, it's all up to Steve Bivens and Mike Stevens to see it through.
(Teammates Mark Fackrell and Guy Sapone could not make the event this year.)
“We've been checking our meat, the equipment, coal, wood — and just making sure we have everything we need,” said Bivens, who joined Mountain Grillas three years ago.
Bivens said he's not nervous at all. In fact, he said he's catching up on some much-needed rest.
“I'm feeling good about it,” he said. “And maybe next year we can join more categories.”
Mountain Grillas have competed in Charlotte, Danville and in South Carolina, but nothing compares to the Galax barbecue competition.
“We take it, go with it and have fun,” he said. “We feel like ambassadors of Galax, since this is home.”
The only difference this year is there are more teams, which means fierce competition for Mountain Grillas. Last year, there were only 13 teams in the professional division.
“But that just means more people coming to Galax,” he said. “It's just a lot of fun.”
Other local competitors — Rick Gordon, under the name Rick's Ribs; Scott Honaker of Bobbi-Q; and Galax Police Chief Rick Clark, of Tuteree — have entered for the first time the amateur BBQ “Patio Porker” division.
Clark has been refining his “special sauce” recipe that he created through trial and error.
“The sauce starts out sweet, it bites you and then goes away so it doesn't leave any aftertaste,” said Clark, who has entered both the sauce and “Anything Butt” competitions.
Clark said he joined the competition on a whim about three months ago. “The only reason I didn't join before is because I didn't want to put The Galax Smokehouse out of business,” he joked. “I just think the whole thing is a good time.”
Clark began barbecuing when his family gave him a cooker for Father's Day about 10 years ago. He has since worn that cooker out and has purchased a second one.
“The sauce competition is the same as barbecuing,” he said. “You have to be slow and take your time.”
The event is sponsored by the Twin County Regional Chamber of Commerce, The Galax Smokehouse restaurant and the City of Galax.
Other sponsors of Smoke On The Mountain include Abilene Motor Express, AEP, Andrews Farming, Applebee’s, Artifax, BB&T, Balfour Beatty, Barr’s Fiddle Shop, Bojangle's, Dr. John Carmody/Hugh Chatham, City of Galax, Cooley-Compton Law Firm, The Doctor's Inn, E&L Diamond, E.G. Forrest, Eden Distributing, Edward Jones Investments, Embarq, Food City, Galax Tastee Freez, Grayson-Carroll-Wythe Insurance, Grayson Law Firms, Grayson National Bank, M.E. "Marty" Hall Jr., Horton’s Supermarket, Kroger, Little Caesar’s Pizza, Lyons Law Firm, Marlene’s Catering, McCraw Insurance, Mink Car Sales, Morton Realty, Nail Classics, NASCAR/The Kellogg Foundation, Old Town Market, Dr. Wade Peery, Pepsi Cola, Pizza Hut, Prime Sirloin, Results of Galax, Ruth Hall State Farm, Twin County Regional Healthcare, Vaughan Furniture, Wal-Mart, Williams Physical Therapy and Wytheville Community College.
• For more information, visit www.smokeonthemountainva.com or call 236-2184.