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Thrill of the Grill

Two local teams fire-up for national barbecue competition.

Standing in the driveway of his Vienna home, Andy Stoddard sighed over the state of his rather large black-metal grill, currently turned over on its side and in need of attention. Stoddard owns other grills, one of which was in the process of slow-cooking a batch of ribs, but the cooker on the edge of the lawn is his favorite. He calls it “Demon Child,” a name which prompts one of his children to giggle. The name was given to the grill during a barbecue competition in 2003, when a number of Stoddard’s teammates found the beast near impossible to control.

“They decided it had a mind of its own and would only respond to its creator — they called it ‘Demon Child’,” he said.

Using his skills as a building engineer, Stoddard built the grill in 2002 from a 55-gallon drum and other found-parts he welded together. It’s one of the weapons he’ll use during the upcoming 15th Annual Safeway National Barbecue Battle, a two-day event scheduled to run this Saturday and Sunday in Washington, D.C.

STODDARD AND HIS long-time friend and teammate, Brett Brown of Arlington, who make up the team “The Night Help,” decided it was time to resurrect “Demon Child.” After getting the grill on its feet, Stoddard showed it off, admitting it could use a paint-job. What must be five-feet in length, Stoddard says “Demon Child” can maintain a five-degree split in temperature from where the heat is generated, to the other side of the grill – noting that similar commercial grills typically maintain a 20-degree difference. He motions to the pipe-stack.

“It keeps the environment so moist when it’s cooking, you can put your hand here, feel the heat, rub your hands together and actually feel the water,” he said.

It’s been a while since “Demon Child” has been fired up, but with the upcoming competition, which is a sanctioned “Memphis In May” event, cooking whole hogs with a minimum weight requirement of 85 lbs, plus shoulders and ribs requires the larger hardware.

“’Memphis In May’ events require so much meat,” said Stoddard. “Sunday we’ll be cooking whole shoulders — that’s 120 lbs. of meat.”

Stoddard started working on the craft of barbecuing in 1992 after reading Christopher Schlesinger’s “The Thrill of the Grill: Techniques, Recipes & Down-Home Barbecue.”

“I got better and better at it,” he said. “Really I was just learning from my mistakes.”

In 2002 he entered the Safeway National Barbecue Battle, placing 5th for his homemade sauce and 9th for his end-shoulder. He believes the secret is in his technique.

“I can give anyone my recipes and not worry about getting beat,” he said.

Brown interjects.

“If a black-belt described to a newbie about form — he’s not going to worry when it comes time to fight,” he said.

BUT STODDARD AND BROWN aren’t the only locals gearing up for the Barbecue Battle, an event declared by the National Pork Board as the “Official National Pork Championship.”

In neighboring Fairfax, Chris Capell and his “Dizzy Pig Barbecue” team prove there’s more than one way to cook a pig.

“Ingredients really do matter,” said Capell. “When you’re cooking it’s all about getting the best ingredients. We’ll tell people 90 percent of what we do.”

And the other 10 percent?

“That’s the secret,” he said.

Sitting in the front yard of his Fairfax home, Capell and Kenny Baker explained the vagaries of these competitions and how even the best cooked meat is still at the mercy of a judge’s palate.

“You know how it is with your friends,” said Capell. “Your friends don’t all like the same thing. You have to prepare for all different kinds of taste.”

“It’s a very subjective thing,” adds Baker.

And points aren’t awarded just for taste. Presentation factors into the overall score. Part of the scoring is derived from blind-box tasting but, in addition, each tent is visited by a group of judges who observe the overall appearance of the meat and preparation area.

“They don’t really ask questions, although I like them to,” said Capell. “We tell them about the Dizzy Pig seasoning and how it complements the meat. We don’t give them sauce. I say we don’t because we want them to taste the meat and seasoning and how it all goes together.”

The team is confident in their product. “Dizzy Pig Barbecue” is the competitive extension of Capell’s company, The Dizzy Pig Barbecue Company, which sells Capell’s homemade rubs and seasoning from its Web site, www.dizzypigbbq.com. Formerly a graphic designer, Capell said the combination of a slumping economy and readily available do-it-yourself designing software made it more difficult for his industry, prompting him to turn his love for cooking into a new profession.

“With the Dizzy Pig, it all came at the same time,” he said. “I said that if I had my own marketing skills, I’ll just develop my own Web site.”

And to measure the quality of his product, Capell saw barbecue competitions as a litmus test — brutal honesty is hard to find with loved ones, he joked.

“That’s when we decided to compete,” he said. “We wanted to see if friends and family were lying to us.”

In their first event, at the New Holland Summer Fest BBQ Competition, the team finished an impressive 8th overall.

“We were the new kids on the block,” he said. “We’ve had such a great amount of success in a short period of time.”

BOTH CAPELL AND STODDARD, who coincidentally was once a member of the Dizzy Pig team, have consistently placed in both “Memphis In May” sanctioned events, as well as “Kansas City Barbecue Society” events — both of which stage competitions around the country throughout the year.

And although success at these competitions brings notoriety, it’s the “Thrill of the Grill” that keeps these teams going. A two-day event that actually begins for most competitors Friday night, most will sleep on-site, swapping stories and recipes with neighboring teams.