One Washington Battle That’s All in Good Taste

Posted June 18, 2008 at 4:34pm

There’s a new kind of battle for control of Pennsylvania Avenue. This weekend, grill masters from across the country will converge on the thoroughfare to compete for the title of National Barbecue Champion.

Among them will be two Congressional staffers so committed to their craft that they will be manning their grills all night and sleeping on cots on Pennsylvania Avenue. Dave Stewart, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), will be making a return appearance at the National Capital Barbecue Battle, an annual event that will enter its 16th year on Saturday.

Stewart has entered “Diego Dave’s BBQ” for the past five years and has taken home trophies twice. He said the barbecue battle brings together his two favorite pastimes — cooking and spending time outdoors with friends and family.

The event offers “fun in the sun, great food from family and friends, and all for a great cause,” he said.

Mike Pierce, legislative assistant for Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), has attended the barbecue battle for five years as well, but this is his first year as a competitor. He’s heading up a three-man team known as “Shirtless Mike’s BBQ,” which will be entering chicken on Saturday, using a recipe he’s been refining since his undergraduate and law school years, and pork shoulder on Sunday. The team’s name is a relic from when Pierce cooked shirtless to beat the heat in his cramped, two-bedroom Foggy Bottom apartment with poor air conditioning.

Piece regards the event as a gateway to future barbecue competitions.

“More than anything else, I’m hoping to learn … [and] meet people who’ve been doing this their whole lives,” he said.

The aspiring food and travel writer will be blogging live from the event on his Web site ShirtlessMikes.blogspot.com to share his observations.

Stewart, who has decided to enter chicken and beef brisket on Saturday and pork ribs on Sunday, has already defied assumptions that professional chefs are better equipped to win. In his first year of competition, he earned fifth place for chicken using a layman’s Weber grill.

“We’re taking our barbecue back to the basics and doing the stuff that any backyard chef can do,” Stewart said.

This year, he’ll be cooking with his same trusty Weber grill, though he admits he will have the benefit of one addition: a small smoker.

His beef brisket, which won fifth place in 2005, takes 13 hours to smoke.

“We’re trying to prove that you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to get great results,” Stewart said. “It’s not about the equipment. It’s about the technique.”

Stewart said he’s seen a decrease over the past five years in the number of Food Network-style, corporate-sponsored teams participating in the event, and a growth in local backyard grill gurus.

Organizers noted a drop in competitors from the West Coast. This year, they expect up to 60 percent of teams to be from the East Coast, a 10 percent to 20 percent increase from recent years, according to organizer Allen Tubis.

Stewart and Pierce said their Congressmen will be home in their districts for the weekend, but they expect a large turnout from fellow staffers.

Barbecue battle event planners want to create a festival-like environment for participants and onlookers.

“Even more so than food, we celebrate the cultural experience of barbecue,” Tubis said.

The barbecue battle will feature round-the-clock entertainment with more than 30 bands performing, including rock legend Leon Russell, smooth-jazz star Roy Ayers, Washington’s own “Godfather of Go-Go” Chuck Brown, blues singer Deanna Bogart, New Orleans’ Eric Lindell, young indie rockers Fools & Horses and many local bands.

Celebrity chef cooking demonstrations, moon-bounces, face-painting and a climbing wall are designed to keep the whole family entertained.

Organizers expect to attract more than 100,000 spectators to watch 58 barbecue teams, commercial and non-commercial, compete for more than $40,000 in cash and prizes and enjoy live music, kids’ activities and plenty of barbecue. Over past years, the event has raised almost $1 million to benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington Metropolitan Police Clubhouses, whose mission is to provide a positive environment for district youths, particularly the underserved.

Although the admission cost does not include the price of food and beverage, there will be close to 50 free sampling stations available in the massive Safeway Sampling Pavilion and following some of the cooking demonstrations.

The National Capital Barbecue Battle is open Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. One-day tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 6-12 and free for children under 6. They can be purchased at the event or online. For more information, visit bbqdc.com or call 202-828-3099.