David Gassaway and Greg Dulin’s secret weapon just might be the Ugly Drum Smoker. Or is the secret in the sauce?
The Kalispell competitive barbecue team known as the Smokin’ Hot Grillfriends will be among the local favorites when they roll into Whitefish on July 24 for the Flathead Valley’s first major barbecue cookoff, the Stumptown BBQ Smoke Off.
In their inaugural competition last month in Coeur d’Alene, the barbecue novices came away as grand champions of the Inland Northwest BBQ Idaho State Championship.
They hadn’t even expected to place.
“We were just hoping not to come in last,” Dulin said with a laugh.
Even though they were merely on a scoping mission in Coeur d’Alene, they had a couple of things going for them.
Gassaway had taken a judging class in Yakima, Wash., earlier this year to learn what Pacific Northwest Barbecue Association judges are looking for in sanctioned competitions such as the Idaho show and upcoming Whitefish cookoff. He also took a competitive cooking class in May.
“Of course everybody there thinks their barbecue is the best,” Gassaway said, “but we thought we had an advantage knowing what the judges were looking for.”
They cooked through a stormy night in Coeur d’Alene and their efforts paid off bigtime. The duo was surprised when the awards kept coming — pork butt, fifth place; brisket, second place;
chicken, fifth place; ribs, second place. They’d placed in all four categories, giving them the points to earn the overall prize.
“We’re our own worst critics,” Dulin admitted. “We didn’t think our chicken was that good.”
They hung higher hopes on their ribs.
“We felt like if our ribs weren’t in the top half we’d be disappointed,” Gassaway said.
The win qualifies the team for two national events, the American Royal and the Great American BBQ contest in Kansas City. They’ll also be included in a drawing for the Jack Daniels Invitational.
The Smokin’ Hot Grillfriends sent cell-phone photos of their many ruffled ribbons to their wives, who thought they were kidding about all the awards they’d garnered.
With their pride at stake, they’re hoping not to be a “one-hit wonder” when they compete in the Whitefish contest.
The southern gentlemen may have barbecue in their blood. Eight years ago Dulin and Gassaway moved their families from West Memphis, Ark. — a stone’s throw from barbecue capital Memphis, Tenn. — to Kalispell.
Barbecue restaurants were few and far between in the Flathead.
“You could go anywhere there [in the Memphis area] and get barbecue,” Gassaway said, adding that the world-famous Rendezvous barbecue restaurant wasn’t far from his Arkansas home.
Dulin came to Kalispell with a job in the imported products business; Gassaway worked in the miniblind business and now sells car parts online.
They dabbled with barbecue, but didn’t get serious about it until a year or so ago when Gassaway wandered onto a website for Ugly Drum Smokers, 55-gallon barrels fashioned into an upright barbecue grill. He was so intrigued with the idea he bought a used drum and built his first Ugly Drum.
The first meat they tried was pork butt, which is called a butt but really is pork shoulder. Not bad, they decided. They’d freeze batches of barbecue and then compare with the next batch. Slowly but surely they honed in on a winning combination that combined the unusual upright drum cooker with traditional Memphis-style barbecue.
Memphis barbecue uses a dry rub and slow cooking process. The meat, typically pulled pork or slab pork ribs, is then anointed with a somewhat sweet sauce.
Gassaway and Dulin go the extra mile, injecting their meat with marinade before it’s cooked.
The smoke is important, too. Sugar maple goes best with chicken, they advised. For pork butts, hickory wood works well. Apple wood is nice for ribs. They mix and match wood to their liking.
The thing about experimenting with barbecue is that you need people to eat the end product. That’s been no problem for the Grillfriends. They recently served 100 people when Dulin’s daughter graduated from high school, and served a tailgate party at the University of Montana for another daughter who’s a college cheerleader.
With three kids apiece, there are always people coming and going and sniffing their way to the barbecue grill at the Gassaway and Dulin households.
Gassaway figures he’s built about 10 Ugly Drum Smokers for friends and family. He’s even gone so far as to acquire the uglydrumsmokers.com Web domain and has set up a Web page as a helpful tool for fellow barbecue aficionados. There’s free information about how to build your own Ugly Drum Smoker.
The Grillfriends have learned a lot about barbecuing through the online BBQ Brethren forums at www.bbq-brethren.com/forum.
“Everybody is really willing to help,” Gassaway said. “We’ve talked [online] to world-champion caterers” and others in the barbecue business.
As it turns out, barbecuing is addictive and the Grillfriends don’t mind feeding their habit. There’s prize money to be won at cookoffs, so they hope it’s eventually a hobby that pays for itself.
“That way, when our wives ask, it’s an investment,” Dulin said.
They’re hoping to start a catering business. At the upcoming Whitefish competition, they will be allowed to sell their barbecue.
“Maybe we can get some groupies,” Gassaway added.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org