Monday, November 26, 2007

By the time my early flight touched down at Heathrow, I had suffered the interminable wait for my bags and the equally long journey back to the flat by tube, I was, as you can imagine, shattered.

So, it would have made sense to use the four days I had before the next stage of the journey to rest up a bit and, to an extent I did. I mean, I only ate out twice, I did a little bit of exercise and on one day, I lay in until nearly 8am. Not bad for me

Still, by the time I was heading off on the next stage of the journey it seemed like I had hardly been home at all.

Where to next? Well, America of course.

I am going to make no bones about it. I adore America and I adore Americans. I think there is in that extraordinary country, to misquote Johnson “all that human life can afford” and for better or for worse, I was about to head off and find out.

First stop, Kansas City MO.

“What” I hear a collective exclamation “not New York or San Fransisco, or even New Orleans?” Well, of course I was going to go there don’t you worry your pretty little heads. But, I had a very special reason to head first to Kansas City MO and it can be summed up in one word. MEAT.

Let me retrace my steps a bit. A few years back, work brought me into contact with the good people of Hallmark and their book division. This necessitated a number of visits over the next few years to Kansas City, where they are based and also introduced me to my dear friend, Mr Mark Cordes.

For the last few years he has been tantalising me with stories of The American Royal BBQ competition which, despite his invitations, I was unable to attend because it coincided with the equally huge Frankfurt Book Fair.

This year, however, being unemployed, I had no such excuse and it just had to be the very first stop on the US leg of EAT MY GLOBE

OK, before we go any further let’s stop for a moment and talk about BBQ in general and The American Royal in particular.

BBQ in the US is a far cry from what we consider to be BBQ in Europe. In the UK for example, it is, to all intents and purposes, throwing a limp hamburger on the grill until it is charred on the outside and still raw in the middle.

In the US however, BBQ has nothing to do with a grill. It is all about the smoke. In fact it is all about the long slow smoking of meat that has be prepared by rubbing it with a variety of herbs and spiced. After the meat is cooked, it can then be served as it is or with sauces of different varieties.

Sounds simple enough, however, in the US, people have been known to shoot each other in arguments about cooking times, spice rubs and, most of all whether a sauce should be used.

Here in KCM, they use a sweet sauce whereas, as I was to find out later in the journey, in Texas they say “ if you need a sauce then there is something wrong with your BBQ” This is, as you can see, a very serious business indeed.

The American Royal too is a very serious business with over 500 teams taking part and over, wait for it, 400,000lbs of meat being eaten and consumed in, wait for it again, two days.

There are two levels to the competition. The Open which is, er open to anyone who books a space and The Invitational to which you have to be, er Invited by having won a championship elsewhere.

I had been invited, via Mark, to join a team called “Burn Rate” which comprised eleven of his friends from Kansas City and, a couple of days after I arrived in town via Chicago, I was collected by his friend, Paul and put to work with the set up for the large space they had rented for the event.

Now, it has to be said that this is a not inconsiderable task. They had rented a large truck ,which would provide not only transport but also accommodation for everyone during the three day event, and it was soon filled to bursting with all the things we would need to create a kitchen and party space too.

There was, of course, the food too of course. Not just the meat of which there was nearly 600lbs, but also, mustard and spicing for the rubs, vegetables for salads, breads, chips and heaven knows what else. Add to this, ridiculous amounts of booze and you begin to get the picture, particularly when you realise that this was only one of 500 teams.

This is very much a “guy” event. The wives of the various members of the team are “Q widows” for the duration of the American Royal and, although they come down to the party each night you can feel a sense of bewilderment amongst them as to why their men folk get quite so excited about this time of year.

As a man, it is easy to see. This is, in effect, the biggest tailgate party you can ever imagine. An opportunity for men to get away by themselves and hang out with other guys, drink copious amounts of booze and be generally disgusting.

I was all for it, although the soft London nancy boy in me persuaded me that sharing a truck with ten other men none of whom had bathed and all of whom were farting bourbon fumes, would not fare well in comparison to a soft comfortable bed and a hot shower back at Mark’s house. He, thankfully, was in complete agreement and, after set up was finished and we had rubbed some ribs and pork butt, we headed back to his place and crashed out.

The next morning, the smoker was in full effect

and the first of the day’s offerings was ready to be sampled. Some juicy, meaty, dense ribs provided the perfect breakfast particularly when washed down with the first, and certainly not the last, of the day’s beers.

It is a family affair too with the children of the team members coming along to help rub ribs and pork butt.

Mark had kindly organised for me to go on the VIP tour, so later than morning, I headed off with a group of other willing victims to visit half a dozen teams on The Invitational side of the showground.

Now, these are the real deal. Burn Rate took things seriously, but at the end of the day, this was a chance to get together and have fun. Not so for the competitive sorts on the Invitational. These are the pro’s. These are the guys who travel around the country every weekend to compete against each other and who can win cash prizes significant enough to keep them almost permanently on the road.

Mind you, it is not so serious that they don’t take the opportunity to give themselves great names too. Names which include, Motley Q, Morning Wood and my own particular favourite, The Master Basters. Fabulous.

We got tastes too, man we got tastes, ribs, pulled pork and brisket along with as much beer as we could handle. What we prepared at Burn Rate was great, but when you taste the championship stuff, you begin to see why people all over the US become so obsessed with this stuff. The ribs were so good that one booth even wrapped a whole bunch in foil for me to take back with me. I thought for one brief second about sharing them with my new friends, but then the evil god of porky goodness took over and I scoffed them all in about thirty seconds and arrived back at the Burn Rate booth burping and denying all knowledge of any ribs but their own. I think they bought it.

By now, the party was getting into full swing and I headed off to the fetid shower block to clean up a little. I had been put to hard work all day building a fence out of hay bails and wooden panels and, quite frankly, I stunk like a dead dog.

Showered and changed, I settled down to enjoy the night’s activities. I think, over the two days, we fed well over 500 people. Friends, sponsors and family all descended and chowed down on slices of fatty moist brisket, smokey ribs and, best of all, pork, slow smoked and then pulled apart before being tossed in a sweet sauce. There were some salads for the ladies and even some bits of chicken but I was concentrating on the main event.

Mind you, I had spent so much of the day eating ( remember those 8am ribs) that I was already pretty full and, like many of the organisers, shattered so much of the food was left to the guests to finish off as we sat around, drank and watched unfathomable American sport on TV.

And finish off the food they did. By midnight, it was if a plague of locusts had descended upon us and there was barely a morsel left.

It would be fair to say that most of us were “in our cups” by this time and, after the guests had departed, the guys began to fashion rudimentary sleeping places around our area. Hay bails for mattresses and inflatable beds in the truck which was already beginning to smell like Satan’s arsehole.

It was at this point that Mark and I decided to bail out and head back to his luxurious gaff for a decent shower and a soft bed ( soft jessies, remember?)

The organisers of the American Royal had decided to add another day to the event, primarily, I think to increase sponsorship. I think it would be fair to say that the idea did not meet with wholesale enthusiasm as people dragged themselves up the next morning and prepared for another day of the same.

But, like troopers we were all ready and prepared for another day of meaty goodness (see how we suffer for you?) by 9am and setting up for another party that night.

I had the chance to go on another tour so leapt at the opportunity only to find that the organiser had to drop out and handed me the itinerary and a flag and said “you can lead the tour, you’re a Brit. They will believe anything you tell them with that accent”

Which led to the unlikely sight of said Brit slaphead, that’ll be me then folks, leading a group of Americans (mostly wearing Stetsons with no hint of irony) around the showground feeding them any old bollocks I could think of.

And they did buy it

“ The American Royal began in 1875 after a visit from Queen Victoria who announced she fancied a bit of brisket for tea”

“over one million cows are killed to provide meat for teams” Er, this may well be true

“BBQ originated in Rotherham, England where coal miners used to smoke sparrows down the mines of a Saturday”

All complete garbage of course, but they fell for it hook, line and sinker. The accent really does have its uses.

By then, it was back to party number two, which was, thankfully, much more sedate than the night before and gave me the chance to talk more to my incredible hosts.

To get on a team for The American Royal is an amazing thing. To be invited back individually by each member in turn (even if the combo of booze and Midwestern accents did make me ask them to repeat if a number of times) was even more special.

In a few short days, I truly believe that I made some friends I will know for a very long time and, even if they did not mean it, I have every intention of coming back next year and every year after that until they take out a restraining order against me.

Top marks, however, go to Mr Mark Cordes who had been telling me about this event for years. He was not wrong. This was not only one of the highlights of my trip, but of my life. I cannot ever recall an experience like it

I have a mantra as I travel around the world and do extraordinary things.

“when would a nice middle class boy like me from London ever get to do X?”

Well, this nice, middle class boy from London went to The American Royal BBQ competition this year and, you know what? I’ll be back.

Thank Q Kansas City MO and thank you, Mr Mark Cordes


A C O said...

A great time Simon, glad you made it, can't wait for next year. I'm only recently re-introducing meat into my regular diet. However, my appetite for beer and whiskey snapped back into place a little more quickly.
Travel safe.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you spent some time in Kansas City. It would be worth a trip even without its outstanding food.

I don't think you'll find nicer people anywhere in the U.s.

Anonymous said...

Reading this brought back memories. Simon, maybe next year we need to get you involved as a judge? yes, no? Then you get to see the event from a different side. And you can still party.