The Last Ride of Mustang Sally
Saturday: 6:39 a.m.
Brian Brandt likes it “low and slow.” His meat, that is.
He’s out seasoning three racks of ribs in the RA parking lot at Southwest Minnesota State University as part of the 2014 Smokefest Barbecue competition. After eight years, he and Karl Porisch are competing in their final barbecue competition together under the Mustang Sally Tailgating Association name. Porisch is retiring from competition after this event.
There are 31 teams competing today with names like Charcoal Loungers, Eggspert Barbecuers, and the Brisketeers. Today’s competition, much like every other barbecue competition, is a marathon, not a sprint. “The butts and briskets have been in since eleven last night,” says Brandt as he points to his Backwoods Fatboy smoker.
Barbecuing is as precise as any science lab experiment. There are thermometers, measuring devices, and personal protective equipment. You want your pork between 195 and 200 degrees and your brisket between 200 and 205 degrees. Sometimes that means getting up every two hours in the middle of the night to adjust the temperatures.
Even though it is a competition, the teams are friendly. At 9:22, a few dozen cookers gather around the Mustang Sally RV to take the “commemorative shot” of Jack Daniels Honey Whiskey. This one is honor of Porisch. “We’ve had a pretty good run these past eight years. This is the last time we’ll be doing this together,” says Brandt as Porisch looks on with a smile. The shot is downed.
“This is where we first started. The first one was the most fun because we didn’t know what we were doing,” Porisch says after the crowd goes back to their cooking stations. Mustang Sally knows what they are doing now. An approximately six-foot tall trophy that they won the previous weekend at the Great Norther BBQ Cook-Off in Brainerd is on display outside their RV.
t’s time to turn in the chicken. Teams have a ten-minute window to turn in their meat. Chicken is the first of four meats to be judged along with pork ribs at 12:30, pork at 1:00, and beef brisket at 1:30. Each team must put approximately six servings of meat in a styrofoam box and bring it to the judging section at the required time.
There are 31 judges seated as six different tables in the RA gym. There are eight women and 23 men. Five are wearing baseball caps. One is wearing a yellow shirt with the Spam logo on it. All are silent when they eat their meat.
Each judge must be certified by the Kansas City Barbecue Association, who also sanctioned this event. They must take an all-day class that costs between $75-$100. The judges will rate the meat based on appearance, tenderness and taste, using a 0-9 scale that is weighted most towards taste.
The judges do not know which team they are sampling. “You are not going to get meat from the same cooker twice,” says Dave Lundeen, the KCBS official who is running the event, as he stands by the entrance of the gym.
A few minutes later, Brandt and Porisch are outside of their trailer working their magic on the brisket. “They are making burnt ends from the point of the brisket. If they turn out right, they taste like candy,” says Brian’s wife, Kathy.
Judge Rick Wiersma sets a blue plastic tray with six styrofoam boxes of brisket down on his table.
Wiersma, who is from Spirit Lake, Iowa is the table captain, which means he is in charge of the meat logistics for the table, gathering the meat, showing it like a wine sommelier, and turning in the judging slips. He’s a jolly fellow with round rimmed glasses and a white handlebar mustache that goes down to his neck. Wiersma still has a smile on his face even after eating approximately a pound and a half of meat already. He’s been judging barbecue for three years.
“If you can fold it, it’s good brisket,” said Wiersma between the pork and brisket rounds. The meat from cooker number 306 breaks as he folds it.
The Mustang Sally team is sitting outside their RV, enjoying a few cold beverages. “When they called professional barbecuing a sport, it was the happiest day of my life,” says Brandt.
The teams have gathered in the RA gym, many looking like they just spent the day at a construction site. SMSU Athletic Development Director Tim Steinbach takes the microphone to hand out the award. The top ten finishers in each of the meat categories get an award.It is considered an honor to be “called out” at a competition. The top team overall gets a glass trophy that is in the shape of a Mustang.
Before the hardware is handed out, Steinbach calls up Brian and Kathy. Brian just recently stepped down as president of the Mustang Booster Club. Athletic Director Chris Hmielewski reads from a plaque that congratulates Brandt for his years of service. Kathy is teary-eyed. The crowd gives them a standing ovation.
All the awards are handed out. Mustang Sally got second in chicken, second in pork, eighth in brisket, and fourth overall. They don’t know what happened with their ribs. “I’m thinking that’s the highest we’ve ever finished here, isn’t it?” asks Porisch as he holds on the to the hardware.
“I think in eight years we may have made two top-ten finishes, so this is a real treat,” adds Brian. They’re laughing and in good spirits.
“What are you going to eat tomorrow?” asks a curious bystander.
“Fish,” says Porisch.
“I’m thinking pizza,” says Brandt with a laugh.