Smoking is not allowed at county parks — unless it’s done by the pitmasters smoking their brisket, pork butts, pork ribs and chicken for today’s Hilo Bay BBQ Cook-Off.
Thirteen teams are entered in the 8th annual competition, 11 from the Big Island and one each from Honolulu and Texas. A few had their smokers going yesterday afternoon, but most were cooking chili and preparing poke, waiting for the evening to smoke their beef brisket, pork butts, ribs and chicken “low and slow” to mouth-watering perfection.
“This is the only barbecue competition in the world that has a poke contest,” said Rick Frederick, the contest’s organizer, and owner of Hawaiian Arts t-shirt shop in downtown Hilo. “We used to do this in the parking lot behind my shop on Furneaux Lane. People would bring stuff down and then stick it in the pit. Then at the end of the night, we’d taste everybody’s stuff.
“But it’s different now. Everybody’s got their own pits.”
That’s not the only change. The Hilo Bay event is now sanctioned by the International Bar-B-Que Cookers Association.
Judge Judy will hold court today at the mauka soccer field on Kamehameha Avenue on the Hilo Bayfront — not the acerbic TV judge, but Judy Keeney of Fort Worth, Texas, the IBCA-certified head judge for the event.
“I’m here to make sure the contest is run fairly, that it’s run by the rules. I’m not the one who sits down and scores it,” she said. “We want the local people to come out and do it. I make sure the product is right in the tray and that it’s turned in on time. Then I serve it to the people who sit down to be the table judges.”
Keeney said the Hilo cook-off is among her favorites.
“There’s nowhere else we cook where we have an ocean view. We do some cook-offs at lakes, but it’s not quite the Pacific Ocean,” she said.
The event is an all-day affair. Judging of chicken is at 11 a.m., ribs at noon, pork at 1 p.m. and brisket at 2 p.m. The awards ceremony will follow shortly thereafter. As an IBCA event and the official state barbecue championship, the stakes are high, Frederick noted.
“The grand champion wins a slot at The Jack,” he said, referring to the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational in Lynchburg, Tenn. “They gotta pay their way over but they go up against the best 90 people (in the world).”
A perennial favorite is James Newlon, owner of Big Jake’s Island B-B-Q in Honaunau. The smell emanating from his tarp tent was enough to make a carnivore drool. He opened his smoker, “Little Bertha,” to reveal numerous racks of meaty, succulent, dry-rubbed St. Louis-style pork ribs.
“I feel pretty good,” Newlon said about his chances at taking home the big trophy and a chance to represent Hawaii in Tennessee. “I got a good strategy goin’ this time. I’m not sellin’ all the sandwiches and stuff this year, so I can keep my focus. Strictly competition (barbecue) and I’m just sellin’ ribs. That’s it. So I think I’m ready.”
On a table in front of Newlon were numerous institutional sized jars of his barbecue sauce and a shaker container with his dry rub, the contents of which only Jake — and possibly the NSA — knows. The container was labeled “Montreal Steak Seasoning.”
“There’s some of that in there,” Newlon said. “There’s lots of other stuff, too.”
Asked who he thought would be the teams to beat, Newlon pointed to Crash DeJarnett of Shig’ Alohaz from Kailua-Kona and Bobby Barefield Jr. and Team Bobbalicious, the Texas entry.
“I want to beat him,” Jake said, and laughed.
Barefield was also on the mind of Hilo’s Geno Enocencio, a Vietnam veteran whose team is called Lone Soldier Honor Guards. Enocencio and his grandson, Orion Enocencio Jr., aka “O2”, were browning beef for chili, Hawaiian-style, in a wok.
“Last year, I entered, because I said to myself, ‘Those guys from Texas need a lickin’,” he quipped, smiling. “So why not let a Hawaiian do it and show em what real Hawaiian barbecue’s all about. They’ve had some Texas folks come over and they won a lot of the stuff, but last year, I won the chili. And that was great, because I never really thought I was gonna win anything, you know.”
Enocencio might have some competition in the chili category. The aroma wafting from a pot on Team Mau Kai’s Coleman stove smelled more like Texas than Hawaii. Suzanne Benoit called it her “napalm chili” — which sounds like the Fire Department should be standing by.
“It’s not really bad. If it were up to me, I’d make it hotter,” she said, noting she didn’t want to inflict permanent damage to the judges’ taste buds. Asked what’s in the chili, Benoit rattled off a list of ingredients.
“Smoked chipotles, and then a blend of other different chilies. We have lamb, bacon, pork (and) local grass-fed beef. When you mix the different meats, you get a little bit more depth of flavor,” she said.
“Nooooooo,” Benoit replied with obvious disdain.
Then, there’s Barefield, who has a bull’s-eye the size and shape of Texas on his back. His dad and Frederick are longtime pals, and he was tending to a pot of chili while his wife, Alicia, was slicing green onions for poke.
“All of the learnin’ I got and the experience is from my dad,” he said. “You learn from your dad and you pick it up and keep the tradition goin’. We’re here to have a little vacation and enjoy ourselves while we’re doin’ it.”
Barefield and his dad competed at the cook-off two years ago, and cooked up a surprise for the competition — in the poke category.
“We had never heard of it, never tasted it,” he said. “We went to the market and tasted all the different kinds and picked the one we liked best and tried to make it like that. And we ended up gettin’ fourth place.”
Good-natured barbecued ribbing aside, both Barefields were all smiles and obviously enjoying themselves.
“This is my first time bein’ here in Hawaii,” Alicia Barefield said. “If we could have weather like this back in Texas, that would be awesome.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.