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On the Menu - Tucson pitmaster is sweating smoke

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Matt Russell


To say that Mark Smith has barbeque in his blood may be an understatement, as this Tucson pitmaster is known to say, “When I sweat, I sweat smoke.”

 So who better to turn to for some last minute lessons as I prepare to head up to Sparks, Nevada to judge the annual Nugget Rib Cook-off, hosted by the JA Nugget Casino Resort.

 This will be my fourth year serving as a judge for what I’m told is the biggest rib fest in the country. Attracting more than 500,000 people, who will collectively consume more than 250,000 pounds of ribs, the Labor Day weekend event brings out 24 of the nation’s top rib cookers, each competing for cash prizes and bragging rights in ribs and sauce categories.

 Smith, who built the barbeque program at the Hog Pit Smokehouse, 6910 E. Tanque Verde Road, is head hog of the Hog Pit’s competition barbeque team. He and his wife Dorothy spend much of their time on the road, competing in industry-sanctioned events across Arizona, Nevada and California, and, over the past nine years, they have participated in more than 50 competitions.

 Honoring Smith’s ‘cue creds, I sat down with him last week to brush up on what a rib judge should be looking for in the perfect rack.

 First, Smith reminded me that baby back ribs have no place at an official rib competition.

 “Competition ribs must always be spare ribs,” he affirmed, “as there’s more consistency in the bone structure, they’re much straighter than back ribs and judges like that uniformity.”

 Next comes the appearance, which is taken just as seriously by judges as taste and texture.

“Judges are looking for that ‘I just gotta have a bite’ appearance,” Smith said. He tells me that high marks for appearance will be earned by racks that have a bit of a glisten, a “sheen” as he calls it, resulting from a thin coating of sauce, “so thin that you can still see the meat.”

Taste is where winners really win, and losers, well, lose.

Smith says the perfect rib will be juicy and tender, and have a “melt in your mouth” quality. Judges also have their taste buds on the lookout for ribs that are over-smoked, a common mishap which often produces a sooty flavor.

Smith smokes his racks for approximately four hours at 202 degrees, and they reportedly have just a “kiss” of smoke.

Texture is the final category, which has become the source of some conflict between restaurateurs and pitmasters.

“Competition ribs should absolutely not fall off the bone,” Smith argued, a style of preparation that has become popular at restaurants across the country. According to Smith, winning ribs actually adhere to the bones, requiring a bit of a chew, and some resistance, to pull the meat.

Interestingly, the Hog Pit Smokehouse’s ribs are of the fall-off-the-bone variety, and Smith’s acquiescence here is a result of his respectfully yielding to his customers’ collective palate which prefers that level of uber tenderness.

"But on the competition circuit,” Smith noted, “that just wouldn’t fly.”

Smith concluded that competition barbeque is “a month of preparation, two hours of fury, four hours of waiting and 15 minutes of awards.” It’s a painstaking process that has earned the Hog Pit competition team high honors on the circuit, including top prizes for its ribs.

After my pep talk from Smith, I’m eager to assume the responsibilities that come with my annual judicial assignment, and confident that I’ll be sweating a little smoke myself.

(Editor's Note: Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at mrussell@russellpublic.com. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 4-5 p.m. Saturdays on KNST 790-AM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030-AM.)

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Matt Russell