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The Nervous Wreck Cookin' Crew always lives up to its name this time of year.
Their stomachs clench, and not just from eating too much barbecue.
They sweat, and it's not just the heat from their cookers making those beads roll.
The Galax-based team — headed by Cody Cline and Mark Davis — takes competitive barbecuing seriously.
This year that anxiety was rewarded with a fourth-place showing in the pork shoulder category at Smoke on the Mountain, the annual state barbecue championship hosted by Galax and sponsored by the Twin County Regional Chamber of Commerce and The Galax Smokehouse restaurant.
There were 16 professional teams this year, only six of which are recognized in each of the main, Memphis Barbecue Network-sanctioned contests of ribs, pork shoulder and whole hog.
Only one team earns the top prize in each of those categories and only one of them —the top hog, if you will — wins the grand championship, takes home Galax's unique banjo trophy and earns bragging rights as the best in Virginia.
After competing for several years, this was the first time Nervous Wreck placed in one of those top categories. It did earn first place in 2008 for its "Anything But" entry of juicy beef brisket.
Local teams made a good showing this year in the non-sanctioned categories.
Galax Tourism Director and avid chef Chuck Riedhammer entered the "Anything But" contest. Dishes can be "anything but" pork and range from beef and chicken to alligator, rattlesnake and octopus.
Barbecue judge Larry Orberg recalls an entry in this category at the Memphis In May championship that turned his stomach — a rat, shaved of fur except for around its ankles.
"It looked like a poodle," he says, upper lip curling with disgust.
(To be fair, it was a traditional Taiwanese dish, but still — ugh.)
Riedhammer was shocked, he said, to place second in the category with his barbecued chicken pizza — a tortilla topped with meat, sauce, cheese and veggies. After all, he was up against some of the best professional barbecue cookers in the world.
He was only beaten by Natural Born Grillers, a nationally-known team and perennial favorite on the barbecue contest circuit.
Also competing in this division was Galax Police Chief Rick Clark, who entered his chicken wing recipe.
In the "Patio Porker" division, amateurs vied for the honor to be called a professional. A first-place finish means you can never compete as an amateur again and can join the big boys.
Two Galax teams placed — Rick Gordon of Rick's Ribs third and Scott Honaker of Bobbi-Q second. Clark also competed in this division, as well as sauce.
Teams stayed up all night Friday cooking their entries, some of which take up to 16 hours to smoke.
Saturday morning, they hustled to dress up their cookers and make sure their entries were up to par for the judges.
Local volunteers packed the second floor of the Galax Municipal Building, attending to teams' and judges' needs.
Some served as "ambassadors," escorting judges as they navigate the crowded downtown competition area. They have to keep time and shush the crowd while judges taste and analyze the entries.
Other volunteers — mostly members of the Carroll County High School Interact Club, under the direction of Shannon Dalton — serve food, clean tables and decorate.
When Dalton speaks, the kids snap to attention without question and with vigor and enthusiasm. It's no wonder the visiting judges — some from as far as New York, Illinois and Texas, and most veterans of the barbecue circuit — say they're impressed with their polite manners and professionalism.
Overseeing this army of teens, ambassadors and judges with unflappable authority is volunteer coordinator Carlene Poole.
She fields questions on the fly, assigns people to their duties and does it all while moving.
As it has since the beginning, Smoke on the Mountain drew praise from teams and judges for the hospitality they were shown and how well they were taken care of — something they say Galax could teach the larger and older competitions.
“During the past few years, we have heard increasing mention about this contest and what a pleasurable experience it has been to many judges," said Victor Canseco, a judge from East Hampton, N.Y.
"This was, without a doubt, one of the best organized and executed contests that we have been to... It was obviously put together by a group of people who both cared and enjoyed the task at hand.”
Though organizing the event is a monumental task, Poole said these compliments inspire the volunteers and encourage them to get started planning next year's contest.
(That'll start this week, when organizers start picking apart what went right and wrong over the weekend.)
A few local volunteers got a chance to see the contest from a judge's perspective this year, as they were invited to taste and rank the sauces and Anything But entries.
The array of sauces proved challenging to narrow down, with entries ranging from sweet and fruity to dark, thick and molasses-like to red, spicy and hellishly hot.
The sheer creativity of the Anything But entries was amazing. Standouts were smoked buffalo burgers with melted bleu cheese, a lightly seared smoked tuna with a lemony sauce and a massive beef brisket on a bed of wild rice and smothered with a sauce that contained shrimp.
This year's grand champion, the team that earned the most points from judges, was Jack's Old South of Vienna, Ga., a repeat winner at Smoke on the Mountain.
The veterans of Food Network shows about the barbecuing circuit made the finals in all three major categories — rigs, pork shoulder and whole hog.
Jack's Old South has already earned a spot in Memphis in May 2010, so second-place team Natural Born Grillers will represent Virginia and the City of Galax at next year's world championship.
Local BBQ teams made a good showing at this year's Smoke On The Mountain contest in Galax, the official barbecue cook-off of Virginia. Locals are in italics.
Grand Champion — Jack’s Old South, Vienna, Ga.
1st — Jack’s Old South
2nd — Yazoo's Delta Q
3rd — Natural Born Grillers
4th — King Cooking
5th — Barnyard Roasters
6th — Barbecue Anytime
1st — Jack's Old South
2nd — Killer Hogs
3rd — Yazoo's Delta Q
4th — Nervous Wreck Cookin' Crew, Galax
5th — King’s Cooking
6th — Smoke Shack BBQ
Patio Porker (amateur division)
1st — Smokee Trails
2nd — Bobbi-Q, Galax
3rd — Rick’s Ribs, Galax
1st — Natural Born Grillers
2nd — Jack's Old South
3rd — Pappa Pig & The Posse
4th — Barnyard Roasters
5th — Yazoo's Delta Q
6th — Killer Hogs
1st — Natural Born Grillers
2nd — Pappa Pig & The Posse
1st — Natural Born Grillers (Beef Brisket)
2nd — Chuck Riedhammer, Galax (BBQ Chicken Pizza)