Competitive barbeque enthusiasts from New England and beyond gathered to learn from one of the most successful pitmasters in the business.
When competitive barbeque enthusiasts from New England and beyond came to Maynard to learn from one of the most successful pitmasters in the business, they expected that Mike Davis would share insights about cooking times and temperatures, the judicious use of rubs and sauces and the art of presentation.
But from the outset, Davis made it clear that at least one of the keys to his success is one he doesn't have to share: his teammate and wife of nearly 31 years, Debbie.
“Debbie and I go back to the seventh grade,” he told the class assembled at the Maynard Rod & Gun Club last weekend. He shared a smile with his wife as she looked on from the back of the group. “She's put up with a lot from me.”
In a sport where many competitive teams boast half a dozen members or more, Marietta, Okla.-based Lotta Bull BBQ is just the two of them. White-mustachioed Mike does the cooking, but Debbie tastes the finished product and decides which portions will be turned in to the judges. That's the way they've done it since 1999, and in competition barbeque as in other great American pastimes, a team isn't likely to change something that's working.
And there's no question that the way Mike and Debbie do things has been working. The grand championship at a typical barbeque contest goes to the team with the highest combined score for the four traditional competition categories (chicken, pork ribs, pulled pork and beef brisket); in 2006 alone, Lotta Bull BBQ earned 16 grand championships and nine reserve grand championships. That same year, they also won the prestigious American Royal Invitational and the $75,000 grand prize in the Barbeque Championship Series hosted by the Versus TV network and were named the Kansas City Barbeque Society's Team of the Year.
Now Mike and Debbie are giving back to the barbeque community, offering two-day cooking classes in which — although no recipes are divulged — they detail every aspect of their competition technique for anyone who pays to attend the class. And yes, that includes other top-level teams: Attendees at the Maynard class included members of I-Que, who finished fourth overall at the 2006 Royal Invitational and actually placed ahead of Lotta Bull in the pulled pork category, and I Smell Smoke!, the New England Barbeque Society's 2006 team of the year, who finished fourth at the 2006 American Royal Open and 18th at the Invitational.
But the students Mike Davis wants most to help — the ones he spends the most time with as the instructional segment of the class gives way to the hands-on portion, where participants attempt to apply the Lotta Bull techniques using their own equipment — are those who are still getting a feel for competition, who haven't yet had much of a taste of success.
“You know, I sure wish somebody had been giving classes like this when I was first starting,” he said, noting that they went through several years of trial and error before they began winning consistently.
The first Lotta Bull class, held in March in Lynchburg, Tenn., also attracted others from among the barbeque elite, including members of the CancerSucksChicago.com team that won the 2006 Jack Daniel's Invitational competition. The 30 students in that inaugural class, and the 22 graduates of the Maynard class, are now the only barbeque competitors in the country who can say they've earned “PhB of Bullology” certificates.
“This is only the second class Mike's given, so it's kind of an exclusive group,” said Steve Farrin, who competes with Team Agave and I Smell Smoke! and is president of the New England Barbeque Society, which sponsored the Lotta Bull class.
The hands-on segment of the class was designed to simulate a typical barbeque competition, in which entries are turned in every half hour, beginning at noon on Sunday. Participants pitched canopies and set up smokers-- ranging from portable Weber Smoky Mountain Bullets to huge custom-made contraptions--and other equipment on the ball field at the Rod & Gun Club, the same way they would in competition. As Mike Davis does, they put their pork butts on the smokers at midnight and caught a few hours of sleep under the stars before starting briskets at 4 a.m. By breakfast time, the air was filled with the unmistakable smell of barbeque.
Among the attendees at the Maynard class were four other married couples who compete as teammates, and although not all of them divide the responsibilities of competition the way Mike and Debbie Davis do, all watched intently as the instructors demonstrated the way they work together at a contest on the second day of the class.
Wearing matching Lotta Bull denim shirts, Mike and Debbie stood side by side in front of a folding table, critically surveying a scattering of 10 barbequed chicken thighs, in varying and mottled shades of mahogany. Debbie pointed to the two pieces she'd identified as the prettiest, the ones that will be positioned most prominently in the final presentation. Obediently, Mike arranged the two thighs side by side. She nodded and then pointed to two more pieces.
At one point, Mike suggested an alternate configuration, inverting one thigh 180 degrees.“I like it this way,” he offered. Debbie considered this, then shook her head.
“I like it the other way,” she said.
There was no more discussion on the topic. In class, as in competition, her decision was final.
When it comes to cooking, however, Mike is the boss. Class participants took diligent notes as he described and demonstrated every aspect of his technique for each type of meat, from selecting and trimming to rubbing and saucing. Although regional differences in judges' preferences may affect the extent to which the Lotta Bull techniques can be implemented by local teams, even the most experienced of the teams in attendance said they expected their cooking would benefit from the instruction.
“I took five pages of notes,” said Dave Frary of I-Que. “I'll definitely adapt some of it to what I do.”
The key to cooking award-winning barbeque, according to Mike Davis, is consistency.
“I do the same thing every time,” he said. “From my meat to my wood to the charcoal starter I use, I don't change anything.”
The results are undeniable, but of course, being a creature of habit has its drawbacks too.
“A thirty minute change in turn-in time just kicks my butt,” he said. “I have to change my clock so that it still says noon when it's time to turn in chicken.”
A trip to New England can also wreak havoc on a person's routine, especially if that person and his wife are accustomed to traveling in a motor home in the company of their two miniature schnauzers, Aggie and Gabby.
“We love New England, but the next time we come back here we're going to drive,” Debbie said. “We miss the girls.”
Mike will soon be missing Debbie, too, when she takes a two-week vacation from the barbeque circuit to welcome the couple's third grandchild into the world. She insists it'll be good for him to compete on his own for a little while. He begs to differ.
“Oh sure, I can manage by myself,” he said. “I've done it before. But it'll be good to have her back.”