In the thick sea of luxury RVs, scrappy trailers, tent awnings and dwindling daylight, I found Tom McIntosh of Appleton. The flapping Green Bay Packer flag at his base camp was a dead giveaway on these 20 acres of concrete in Kansas City.
Tom was here to cook this month but didn’t expect to smoke out almost all competitors at the annual American Royal World Series of Barbecue. No other barbecue contest in the world is bigger.
“Taste and tenderness – you gotta rock those two” to stand out, he explained evasively during the twilight hours of slow and low roasting, his third American Royal experience.
This pitmaster for one of 563 teams left as a big winner: runner-up (Reserve Grand Champion) in the 174-team invitational division. Only six points (of a possible 720) separated his T-Mac Smokin BBQ Team from the winner, Cool Smoke of Virginia.
Total points are the sum of four meat scores, and T-Mac Smokin’s beef brisket rated a perfect 180 to earn a second trophy. The team’s pork ribs rated sixth, and with these high rankings came about $8,000 in prize money.
“I’m probably as surprised as you,” Tom admits. “I had to take a good look at those (50-pound) trophies the next morning, to make sure this was real.”
He entered meats from Niemuth’s Southside Market, Appleton. His winning combinations of sauce, injections and marinades “are very secret, even more so now,” but Penzeys Spices and Appleton’s Stone Cellar beer figure into the mix.
“It is a balancing act of all of them working in concert to allow saltiness, heat, sweetness, tanginess and stickiness,” Tom offers. The ultimate goal: “fingerlickability that still allows the meat flavor profile to pull through.”
T-Mac Smokin qualified for the invitational after winning the 2012 Death’s Door Barbecue on Washington Island, sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society.
Tom is a backyard grill meister who with wife Becky took their hobby to the next level by joining Appleton’s Smokin’ Good BBQ Club around 2009, after son Ian and daughter Danielle became adults.
They have entered 30 barbecue contests in four years. Their 4-year-old Yorkie-Shitsu is named Brisket. On their trailer is an altered Scottish family crest that makes room for a Celtic bull and chicken.
“My neighbors have long appreciated T-Mac barbecue,” Tom admits. So has their congregation at St. Pius X Catholic Church, where he began cooking for church picnics as part of the Holy Smokers.
T-Mac Smokin uses a WoodMaster Pellet Grill, and grill designer Jeff Poole is part of the team’s core. Tom is a grill dealer. Culinary program grad Paul Wenzel offered an assist in Kansas City with two side dishes (baked beans and asparagus spears), both of which contained Nueske’s meats from Wittenberg.
Tom’s American Royal team also entered the open division, finishing 20th of 535 teams overall, and the brisket placed fifth. He describes American Royal, with a grin, as “a barbecue freak show” and “end-of-the-year run for us” after competing in 11 other contests this year.
Around 50,000 spectators per day attend the World Series of Barbecue for the smoky aromas, music, fireworks, cooking demos and private parties or just to stroll, gawk, drink and eat. Samples of contestants’ entries are not sold or (officially) fed to the public.
Crowds are shooed away by 2 a.m., but for serious contestants or partiers – who come from as far away as Australia and The Netherlands, it can be an all-night affair to hope for the best while babysitting brisket, pork ribs, chicken and pork butt/picnic/shoulder.
The Smokin’ Good BBQ Club, Appleton, hosts The Masters in May, a sanctioned barbecue contest during the first weekend of May; 48 teams competed in 2013. mastersinmay.com, 920-851-2669
BBQ’s Pits N Spits, 2603 W. College Ave., Appleton, is a specialty shop that hosts monthly barbecue club meetings. bbqspitsnspits.com, 920-882-8687
Niemuth’s Southside Market, 2121 S. Oneida St., Appleton, uses some of Tom’s recipes and sauces in their barbecue products. niemuths.com, 920-734-4905
WoodMaster Pellet Grills are made in Red Lake Falls, Minn. woodmasterpelletgrills.com, 800-932-3629
Nueske’s, which is celebrating 80 years of meat making, has a company store at 1390 E. Grand Ave., Wittenberg. nueskes.com, 715-253-4059
In Kansas City are at least 100 restaurants – greasy joints to linen-clad tables – specializing in barbecue. That’s reportedly the most per capita in the nation. “It’s a tradition, we’re deeply proud of it and it’s a part of our civic identity,” says Doug Worgul, author of “The Grand Barbecue: A Celebration of the History, Places, Personalities and Techniques of Kansas City Barbecue (Kansas City Star Books, 2001).
Four-hour KC Barbecue Tours include commentary about local history and attractions. The bus tour is a $65 ticket, which includes generous samplings of barbecue at four places.
Stops are a mix of longtime favorites (Arthur Bryant’s, Gates Bar-B-Q) and lesser-known businesses (Woodyard Bar-B-Que, LC’s Bar-B-Q) Two things distinguish barbecue in Kansas City from what is produced in Tennessee, Texas and the Carolinas: burnt ends (seared brisket trimmings) and a tomato-based sauce that is slightly sweet, usually because of molasses.
For more about where to eat and do in Kansas City: visitkc.com, 800-767-7700.
My colleagues Diana Lambdin Meyer of Kansas City and Sally Walker Davies of Memphis this month launched on iTunes “BBQ Nation,” a travel app. The cost to download it is $2.99, which includes ongoing updates to the digital guide. For details: http://ow.ly/pwGQ2
I assisted with the project by scoping out Fat Matt’s Rib Shack in Atlanta (fatmattsribshack.com, 404-607-1622) and the original Famous Dave’s near Hayward (famousdaveshayward.com, 715-462-3352), a lakeside spot in the Northwoods where Dave Anderson’s cooking for the public began in 1994. Now almost 200 locations of Famous Dave’s operate in 34 states.
Also in the app from Wisconsin is Casey’s BBQ and Smokehouse, Egg Harbor (caseysbbqandsmokehouse.com, 920-868-3038).
What other Wisconsin barbecue restaurants should make the cut for this project? Send me a note before Nov. 1, to share your favorite and briefly explain why it is special. I’ll do my best to lobby for their inclusion in “BBQ Nation” updates, and at least one of you will receive a little surprise from me.
Last: Does Wisconsin have a distinctive way of preparing barbecue? If you know of a standout product or cooking practice, please make me aware of it.