Clippings: The student becomes the master

It’s a shame when the punch line of a story becomes crystal clear before the conclusion of a story. Such is the case with this one, but it’s too good to keep.
It was around four years ago that my brother-in-law Peter created “Ribfest,” a friendly competition among family and friends to see who could cook the best ribs and/or chicken. It began with people bringing their deteriorating Weber grills and improvised smokers to my in-laws’ property in Bristol. The assortment of decrepit cooking contraptions at the first Ribfest would have made Dr. Frankenstein proud.
We all chipped in a few bucks to enter, and the winner of each category got a small cash prize. Wooden sculptures of a chicken and a pig were added during following years to further sweeten the pot.
I’m pleased to say that I won the chicken category at the first Ribfest with a Jamaican jerk recipe. So what if we only had a field of four and some of the judges were in-laws? I had a whole year to take my victory lap and spend my $30 first prize.
If I had known what the future would bring, I would have enjoyed my Ribfest victory a little bit more. I haven’t gotten so much as a whiff of first place since that initial win. In fact, I haven’t even cracked the top three.
Perhaps it was time to bribe the judges, I thought before this year’s competition. No, that wouldn’t work. I pretty much know all of them, and they would just laugh at me for what I would be able to pay them. So I decided to win back my title the old fashioned way — by putting some actual work into it. I scrapped my jerk chicken recipe and moved to a more conventional BBQ preparation. I reviewed a variety of recipes and settled on one calling for a spicy dry rub, finished with a sauce that included red wine vinegar, garlic powder, ketchup, lemon, brown sugar and some maple powder. I did a dry run for the family and they gave the chicken a hearty thumbs up. Kind of like they had done for frozen pizza. But hey, I’m not looking for any Michelin stars. Just a wooden sculpture of a chicken.
I began to size up my competition, which was to include the two-time defending chicken champion, Kate Heffernan. Along with being one of my heroes as she recovers from a double-lung transplant in Boston, Kate is quite the grill master. And Kate was but one in a field of around 10 who would enter the poultry category this past summer. I knew it would be a tough field.
Of course there are always some last-minute entrants. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when our son, Mark, announced his plans to throw his tongs and my charcoal into the ring.
“Hey dad, you mind if I use your jerk chicken recipe?” he asked a day or so before the competition.
“Sure,” I replied, knowing that the spicy Caribbean concoction had not scored well with the judges since year one.
“Mind if I use your jerk spices and rub?” he asked, showing up on Ribfest day with little more than his roommate’s old charcoal grill and a smile.
“No problem,” I said.
“So what’s the best way to cook this?” Mark asked.
I gave him the A-to-Z rundown of how I had prepared jerk chicken in previous competitions, from the application of the wet rub to the proper techniques of keeping the skin from burning. I even shared my charcoal and refrained from sabotaging him. In retrospect, I don’t think he would have believed me if I had advised him to rub his chicken in the dirt first to give it an earthy flavor.
We sweated, side by side, tending to our respective grills. We both delivered our recipes to the judges on time. Mark was taking a restroom break when the judges rendered their chicken decision. Mark had tied for first place with another competitor … and it wasn’t me.
When Mark returned to the scene and learned he was a winner, he exclaimed, “You’re (bleeping) me!”
Truth be told, I was proud of the young man. And hey, I believe I finished fourth, meaning that my offering was at least a  little bit better than road kill.
Since Mark is now a top grill-guy, I have an excuse to put him in charge of cooking the poultry at family dinners.
And if I’m nice, he might let me visit the wooden chicken.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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