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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Georgia pitmaster Wiley McCrary shares secrets that other "men take to the grave"

Earlier this year, the travel site Trip Advisor generated much debate around the country when it announced that Georgia was the No. 1 state in the nation for barbecue, drawing the ire of folks from Texas, North Carolina and points west.

But there is no doubt that the Peach State is worthy of the attention, due to places such as Williamson Bros.Bar-B-Q in Marietta (and now also in Canton and Douglasville), Heirloom Market BBQ in Atlanta and Fresh Air Barbecue in Flovilla, and celebrity pitmasters Myron Mixon and Robby Royal.

However, down in the historic oceanside community of Savannah, is Wiley McCrary, owner of Wiley’s Championship BBQ with his wife Janet. After nearly 30 years of catering events in Atlanta and successfully competing in barbecue competitions around the country, they opened their business in 2005, initially as Savannah BBQ and the restaurant three years later.

In May, Trip Advisor chose Wiley’s Championship BBQ as the fourth best barbecue restaurant in the country, just behind more famous Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, Oklahama Joe’s BBQ &Catering in Kansas City, Kansas, and Bogart’s Smokehouse in St. Louis. Mo.

In 2000, Wiley McCrary was the focus of a CNN feature, “Hog Heaven,” and has finished first in ribs and brisket at the National BBQ Festival in nearby Douglas, Ga. The couple has been National BBQNews Caterers of the Year, state champions in Georgia and South Carolina and reserve grand champions in Alabama and North Carolina.

This spring, the McCrarys published a cookbook, “Wiley'sChampionship BBQ: Secrets That Old Men Take to the Grave (Gibbs Smith),” along with Amy Paige Condon, digital editor of Savannah magazine. It also features great photos by Chia Chong.

He writes in the book’s introduction that on winter days Janet still wears a red cowgirl hat with five pins that note the times they’ve earned perfect 180 scores in Kansas City Barbecue Society competitions.

“Barbecue is surrounded by myths, folklore and downright lies,” he says. “The truth is that although barbecue is an art form based on good craftsmanship, the skills are transferable. The wheel can be reinvented only so many times.

“We, who’ve gone before, owe it to the universe to teach you, just the way someone taught us. I couldn’t have gotten to where I am without the wonderful teachers I’ve been blessed with throughout my life.”

Wiley and Janet McCrary
He counts among his mentors Miss Alberta, the family cook when he was growing up; his father, nicknamed “Slick;” Big Jim Harris, a pitmaster who cooked for Alabama Gov. Big Jim Folsom and later, Ed and Muriel Roith, winners on the barbecue circuit and KCBS board members.

Wiley McCrary seems to be quite the character. He produces a sauce, called “Better than Sex,” which has this disclaimer, “If you still insist that your sex is better than our sauce, write us. Store in the rear of refrigerator out of sight of rabbis, priests and ministers.”

But as demonstrated through the cookbook, he appears humble (unlike another Georgia pitmaster we know). “I’ve always enjoyed learning new things. I’m somewhat of a foodie and like to taste dishes from all over the world, especially from home cooks and backyarders who carry with them knowledge of ingredients and techniques passed from one generation to the next.

“Some of the best cooks in America never went to culinary school; they simply learned standing next to a grandmother in her kitchen or beside an uncle who built his own barbecue pit out of a recycled drum.”

Perhaps that’s why the McCrarys are sharing the “secrets that old men carry to the grave.” Not only do they provide their own recipes, featured every day in their restaurant on Whitemark Island, but those of others as well. There’s Big Jim’s beer BBQ sauce, a salmon recipe from fellow Savannah foodie Damon Lee Fowler and a grilled lobster dish from Buddy Babb of Paradise Ridge Catering in Nashville, Tenn.

The book is designed to be used regularly, as suggested by its ringed binding, and its thorough presentation of the essentials – what kind of tools and accessories you’ll need, how to build your fire and spices and seasonings. A great piece of advice that it provides is that you get a notebook so you’ll remember what works for you.

Photograph by Chia Chong,from Gibbs Smith
The key to consistently good barbecue, the McCrarys say, is knowing the internal temperature of your meat. “Internal temperature always prevails over time,” they write. “An inexpensive digital meat thermometer will become the mightiest weapon in your barbecue arsenal.”

The 215-page book covers all the proteins – pork, poultry, beef, lamb, fish and seafood – as well as sides and deserts. As a Greek, I was pleased to find several recipes for lamb (including a rub) and successfully used the book’s recipe for smoked leg of lamb.

A standout section in the book is the chapter on fish and crustaceans, which reflects the influence and tradition of the Atlantic coastal region and includes Janet’s award-winning recipe for shrimp and grits.

“You cannot carry on a heritage if you are keeping secrets,” Wiley says. “You have got to tell those stories and eat hearty while you can, because there may not be good barbecue in heaven.”

Wiley's Championship BBQ on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 11, 2014

Attending a BBQ Bootcamp really is basic training

Hal Wagner, owner of Charcoal & More, right
To some, barbecue is a form of alchemy, which has been defined as “philosophical tradition whose practitioners have, from antiquity, claimed it to be the precursor to profound powers.”

But as I learned recently at a “BBQ Bootcamp,” preparing good quality food over indirect heat isn’t all that complicated, especially when someone shows you the way. 

Recently, I was among about 20 people who attended a four-hour class hosted by Hal Wagner, owner of Charcoal & More in Sellersburg, Ind. Our group included backyard barbecuers such as myself, as well as others who dabbled in competitions and even some who run the pits at restaurants (including Bloomington’s own Short Stop and Louisville’s Rob-a-Que).   

“I guarantee a good time will be had by all, as well as the possibility of lapsing into a condition commonly referred to as the ‘Meat Sweats,’” Wagner told me when he extended the invitation to attend. 

“We’re going to cook the way we like. We don’t know what you like yet, but that’s for you guys to figure out and we’ll help you along the way,” said Wagner, during his introductory remarks to the class. “We’re going to have some fun.”

Chris Marks demonstrates how to prepare ribs
Our instructor was none other than Chris Marks, winner of more than 40 barbecue competitions across the country, including the American Royal Championship eight times, who I introduced you to earlier this year. He teaches about 75 classes across the United States each year.

“I love teaching barbecue and I love showing people how to do it right,” Marks said. “Where they take it, that’s what I want to hear. I have a lot of people from five or six years ago, when I started to teach classes, who’ve told me how successful they are. The thing that makes me the happiest is when some guy says, ‘My wife really liked this – this was the first time that she’s eaten my barbecue.’”

During the class, Marks used TheGood One brand of smokers, which he designed, but it wasn’t an infomercial. He demonstrated how to “build” baby back ribs, spare ribs, pork shoulder and chicken, beef brisket and scotch eggs in the smoker, which we then were able to sample.

“When we build a rib – notice that I said ‘build’ – we’re going to build it up into layers … We’re going to want to taste the meat. We’re going to want to taste the rub. We’re going to want to taste the smoke,” he told us. “Notice I didn’t say anything about saucing the meat, that’s where you personalize it.”

Out of respect for Marks, I won’t divulge too many of his class tips, but here are a few of his suggestions: 

1. Avoid the "Texas Crutch" 

Aluminum foil, which Marks and others call “the TexasCrutch,” shouldn’t be used because it parboils the meat. When you wrap your meat in the foil, it can lead to a “doughy bite” instead of getting something firm to bite into. All the fat and connective tissues have been rendered out along with a lot of the flavor.

“When you see ‘falling off the bone’ ribs, what do you see it in? Sauce. There’s a reason, because they know they’re dry,” he noted. 

2. Remove the membrane and tenderize your ribs 

After removing the membrane next to the bones, use a folk and poke holes through the meat between each rib. Not only does this tenderize the meat, but it will make them easier to eat later. 

3. Have some mustard handy 

Before applying your dry rub on the meat, put some yellow mustard on first to build your base.
A properly prepared rack of ribs

Marks recommends using just plain old yellow mustard – no honey Dijon or Grey Poupon. The mustard acts as a binding agent between the meat and your spice rubs. It will cook completely off but will enable you to build a crust of flavors coming from your various rubs. This crust also will lock in juices, aka flavor. 

4. Use the mustard and rubs, not marinades, to build flavor 

“Understand this: meat is not a sponge,” Marks said. “If I sit there and spritz and spray it all day, is it going to be absorbed down into the meat? No. Pretty much what it’s going to do is wash away the work you did to build up a great rub.”

Marks is not a big fan of marinades, but believes that meat brines can be useful, particularly with chicken, turkey and hams.

In his rubs, Marks doesn’t use brown sugar because it tends to burn during the cooking process and can thus add a bitter flavor.

5. Watch your temperature to decide when to use wood smoke 

A final tip: The nitrates and nitrites that come from the salt in your rub will interact with the pigment from the wood you are using to smoke your meat primarily when the meat temperature is between 140 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit. For most people, this happens during the first two hours of your cook.

BBQ Bootcamp offers ample opportunities for sampling
Keep in mind that if you are cooking at a higher temperature that your window for adding a smoked flavor will be much shorter as a result. That’s why “low and slow” is more often preferred. Marks prefers to keep his meat temperatures between 225 and 250 degrees at all times.

“As the meat cooks, that cell structure is going to relax and the better it’s going to be,” he said. “The slower that we can do it, the more flavor we’re going to enhance and the physics back that up.”

Adding more wood after the first two hours will have a tendency to make the outside of your meat darker, but won’t add more inside flavor (By the way, Marks is a “wild cherry kind of guy”).

Marks was very friendly and open to questions both during and after the class. “I help people all the time on the phone, even high-end restaurants who call me, wanting to know how to do it right,” he said, after mentioning that we could follow up with him later via email and Facebook. 

Charcoal and More will be hosting another BBQ Bootcamp just outside of Louisville in Sellersburg, Ind., on Aug. 23-24. For more information, call 812-248-2233 or send an email to