Riding towards the eastern edge of Williamson County, the fertile blackland prairie is pretty in a high lonesome way. The horizon’s a hundred miles away and the giant blue sky holds sway over freshly picked cotton fields. The role of king cotton in Central Texas has been diminished but vast 1000 plus acre fields stand testament to the continued might of this crop.
Stepping onto the grounds of the SPJST [ Slavonic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas] Lodge in Taylor, Texas the first thing we lay eyes on reminds us of why love Texas.
Laying on the ground is a shotgun shell, a teething ring and an ear of field corn providing a very fine tableau for the interested observer.
We barely make it onto the grounds before a man motions us over “y’all hungry?” We take a gander at big piles of ruddy pork ribs, brilliant sausages and bacon wrapped shrimps and decide that yes, indeed, we are hungry.
Wayne Ging has been cooking competitively for fifteen years. He’s been to the heights of the Texas barbecue circuit with a reserve grand championship under his belt from the prestigious National Barbecue Championship held in Meridian Texas since the 1980’s.
His food tastes like that of a grand champion as his pork ribs turn out to be the best bite of food I put in my mouth at the cook off.
While Ging at one point was hot and heavy on the circuit doing 15-20 cook offs per year, of late he’s slowed down a mite and only does the SPJST.
We reckon once you’ve proved yourself like this man has you can ease off the gas a little bit and take it easy for a spell.
Special note must be made of the old pit boss’s handmade, all beef sausage as he grinds and stuffs them from scratch. This is time consuming work that few teams are taking the trouble to do anymore. Hell, there’s lots of esteemed barbecue houses in Texas that are out sourcing this task.
Another foodway of Texas is slowly petering out.
With 94 teams competing this year we say our goodbyes and break camp. We stroll around for a bit soaking in the warm weather and chatting amongst ourselves. We don’t stroll for long before we notice an extremely impressive mobile barbecue pit.
Matt Perez of Dirty Barbecue has set up a camp with his cook team so we stand around for a while discussing the state of barbecue cook offs and what brought him to this place today.
Perez was 16 years old when he started building fires and smoking meat. He and his friends would chip in and go to the grocery store to lay in provisions but when it came cook time it was Matt that always inherited the duties.
Granger Texas is his hometown and the base for his cooking team and catering operation. I inquire as to how long he’s been on the circuit and he responds a little over a year. He really hit the ground running though as today marks his 14th tournament since the inception.
We talk about where we go to get barbecue when we eat out and Perez exhibits a wisdom beyond his years when he mentions Black’s in Lockhart as being one of his favorites.
Coming up as a boy Matt’s grand dad had a propane tank that had been converted into a barbecue pit and this is where he learned the ropes. He must be a quick study as his team placed first in brisket and ribs in his first competition out in Andice.
Of course that pales in comparison to Dirty Barbecue’s greatest achievement thusly which is a first place finish in brisket at the Taylor International Barbecue Cook Off.
This is one of the heralded cook offs in Central Texas and provides quite a nice feather in the cap for Perez.
I ask him how he responded when he learned of the victory and he allows as how he “jumped ten feet in the air”.
Who can blame him.
The Texas sun is beating down so we say our goodbyes, wish him luck and mosey on inside the hall.
Inside the lodge it’s chaos. A long queue has formed with cook teams waiting with trays of meat in hand, the bar is packed with old timers drinking cold beer and swapping lies-glad to be out of the heat.
A silent auction is happening and we immediately vector in on a tray of sugar cookies from the kitchen of Ruby Schroeder. We place our bid and say a silent prayer that providence will find us on the business end of these delights at the end of the auction.
Soon the call for judges is issued and we make our way into the inner sanctum, relieved of our beers at door side as there is a strict no tippling policy in place whilst judging..
The brisket comes in waves. Like other competitions we’ve judged, the meat ranges from very good to downright awful with most entries falling squarely in between. Some teams appear to have boiled their brisket and the flesh has gone watery while others have carefully tended their work to good effect.
The room goes quiet as we set about our task. Each entry is carefully evaluated as it makes its way around the tables. Our first objective is to smell the brisket. This allows us to determine what sort of wood has been used to cook the meat. Oak is the most common but we also encounter hickory, pecan and mesquite.
Pacing is important. You have to take tiny bites and carefully ponder each morsel. A lot is riding on each bite as the teams have worked hard on their output and it’s your responsibility to give each one your full attention.
After a mammoth intake of brisket we step back into the bar area and are delighted to find that our sugar cookie bid has been the winning one.
It’s been a great day hanging out with some good, salt of the earth folks who’ve been brought together by the communal power of smoked meat.
This was our first SPJST event but you can rest assured it won’t be our last. We can’t wait to get back out there for one of their Friday night shin digs where they cook old timey hamburgers and everybody sits around drinking beer and listening to country music.
Here’s a list of the winners:
Master Cook – Ritter’s BBQ – Doug Ritter, Lometa,TX
2nd Master Cook – Ritter’s BBQ Too – Carole Ritter, Lometa, TX
3rd Master Cook Under The Influence Hank Smith Elgin Texas
1st: Hank Smith, Under The Influence, Elgin Tx
2nd Cerna Vrana, Jason Vrana, Taylor Tx
3rd Ritter’s Barbecue, Doug Ritter, Lometa Tx
1st Ritters Barbecue Too, Carole Ritter, Lometa Tx
2nd Real Men of Genius, Adam Roznovak, Taylor Tx
3rd RVS Young Longhorn Cookers, Josh Hykel, Troy Tx
1st R&R Cookers Rick Harkins, Elgin Tx
1st Doug Ritter, Ritter’s Barbecue, Lometa Tx
1st Weber Chiropractic Team, Mark Edward, Midlothian Tx
1st Weber Chiropractic Team, Mark Edward, Midlothian Tx