To paraphrase the Certs breath mints advertising campaign, the Hudson Valley RibFest is “two, two, two fests in one.” Held this month in New Paltz, RibFest is both a traditional food festival (think burgers and dogs, roasted sweet corn, jerk shrimp — and yes, barbecued chicken and ribs) as well as a good-natured, but nonetheless fiercely competitive, barbecue competition.
Approximately 50 teams from throughout the Northeast and beyond are expected to set up their smokers in the “contest village,” says Claire Constantino of the Highland Rotary (the RibFest sponsor). They will compete in the New England Society’s grilling contest on Saturday — preparing variety of different foods, including an apple dessert — and the Kansas City Barbeque Society competition on Sunday. “Some of the rigs are really outrageous, and some teams dress up in funny costumes,” Constantino says. “But they get serious when it’s their turn to bring food to the judges.”
Stephen Marx is a member of Tell You What BBQ, a Sloatsburg-based team that will compete at RibFest. He and his six buddies, all high school teachers, got into competitive barbecueing “by necessity. We all love NASCAR. In 2007 we went to a race, and our tailgating situation was just dreadful — rotten hot dogs on a little camp stove. We knew we had to step up our game, so we all started buying smokers.” Although some of his pals spent upwards of $2,000 on their equipment, Marx uses a smoker “made out of a garbage can for $30.”
The secret to good ’cue has little to do with rubs and sauces, Marx believes. “They’re nice, but they are pretty much all the same. All that stuff is extra.” It’s the quality of the meat and temperature control that make the difference. “The real problem with backyard BBQ is that home smokers don’t hold the temperature very well. You need to cook the meat at 250-275 degrees for as long as possible.” In order to get his brisket just right for the judges on Sunday afternoon, Marx expects to be manning his smoker — “and drinking the beer” — beginning somewhere between midnight and three a.m.
Clockwise from top left: The boys of Big Guns BBQ plating their food; some of Big Guns’ hearty creations
Pleasant Valley’s Sean Keever of Big Guns BBQ has been competing at RibFest for seven years. An army vet, he learned to cook as a member of a field artillery unit (thus the “Big Guns” name). He started taking part in barbecue competitions as a hobby: “They reminded me of how we would all sit around and cook something, and then talk smack about each other’s food.” Admittedly a competitive guy, this year he has already been in seven BBQ contests in six states, placing in the top 10 in four of them.
His secret: “We balance sweet heat with a savory flavor profile.” And it probably doesn’t hurt that he can be found cooking over a charcoal fire five nights a week, year-round. “My wife will tell you, we can have a foot and a half of snow, and there’ll be a path shoveled to my grill.”
Besides bragging rights, there’s a lot on the line for Marx, Keever, and the other contestants: RibFest winners share $8,500 in prize money. Marx, at least, seems confident in his chances. “What do my friends think of my food? When it hits their mouth, I’ll tell you what, they say it’s the best they’ve ever tasted.”
Hudson Valley RibFest. Aug. 16-18 at the Ulster County Fairgrounds, 249 Libertyville Rd., New Paltz. $5, under 12 free. 845-306-4381 or www.hudsonvalleyribfest.org
Here are two favorite recipes from Tell You What BBQ:
You can substitute a grill for the smoker. The dish will probably be done in half the time under the lowest heat. Let sit for five minutes and serve. This is a spicy dish, so adjust the jalapenÌƒo peppers and cayenne according to your personal taste.
Raspberry Skirt Steak Sandwiches