Top-Secret BBQ Tips

Top-Secret BBQ Tips

by Dana ‘Big Papa’ Hillis
Big Papa’s Country Kitchen has been cooking pretty hard and serious over the last couple years. We have experienced a little success, and now I would like to share some of the secrets I have learned while competing on the Florida BBQ Association (FBA) trail.

Let’s start with chicken. We have found out you should definitely label your rubs so you do not accidently use a spicy (hot) rub in place of your regular chicken rub. We did not catch that little mistake until we gave a sample to “Mad Dog” with Kick the Tire, Light the Fire. Our chicken made his forehead sweat and set his tongue on fire.

We took 27th place in that contest. Also, be sure to cook enough chicken so that when you drop a full tray on the floor (see Wolfe Brothers BBQ Team) you still have enough to put in a “turn-in” box.

Which brand of chicken should you buy? Sanderson Farms, Publix, Perdue, Sweet Bay, Free Range, Green Wise, Billy Bob’s Farm Raised, Piggly Wiggly’s, Farmer Jacks, Gold Seal Bell and Evans, Wylie Valley, Cyril Bason, Fritton, Meadowsweet, Pimlott’s, LPH, Southmead, Happy Hens, Sedgwick, Pekin, Hillcroft, Merrydale, Brandel and Cambridge are all good choices.

Jim “Big Daddy Q” McCoin once asked us to pick him up some chicken wings when we were in a small town in Georgia. The only kind they had were a family pack of “Value Priced Brand” chicken wings that still had feathers on them. He won first place.

Also, do not put your chicken on too early. At one contest a good friend of ours walked up to our camp at about 8:30 a.m. in the morning. I asked if he shouldn’t be working on his chicken? He proudly told me it was done and even brought me a piece to sample. It was actually very good, but I was worried about it drying out over the next 2-1/2 hours. He finished “DAL” (see end of article for key to acronyms) his first time out, but has gone on to do very well.

Ribs are a whole lot easier. Do you pull the skin? Do you cook whole ribs, enhanced ribs, baby backs or loin backs or back ribs or Danish ribs or spare ribs or St. Louis cut? How about Kurobuta?

Just how many slabs do you really have to cook to get eight good ones? It is so much fun to try and stack ribs in a box and make them look good. I used to trim all the excess meat off the bones not turned in and stack it under the “turn-in” ribs to make them sit real pretty.

I was doing so well with that technique they changed the rules so you could not use meat off the bone any more. One guy used to put so many ribs in his box that he couldn’t close the lid. But, now there is a rule that you must be able to close the lid. Do you use a dry rub or a Memphis rub or a North Carolina rub? Kansas City style sauce or a vinegar-based sauce or spicy or hot or sweet or both or none? The answer is easy. Yes.

In the Pork Division, you must submit eight adequate portions. Should it be pieces, muscles, chunks or strips, or slices or pulled or chopped pork? Some very good friends of mine (see Wolfe Brothers again) actually did a very full box of chopped pork and took it to the turn-in table only to find out they had carefully arranged it in their turn-in box upside down. With no time left, they simply flipped the box over and walked away. It turns out the pork took the shape of the turn-in box lid and scored very high on presentation, earning them 3rd place overall!

At one contest my FEC 100 (Fast Eddy’s pellet cooker) broke, and I had to borrow some old Brinkman charcoal cookers to finish the competition. Just 15 minutes before turn-in, I pulled my butts off the cooker, hurriedly pulled some meat, poured some sauce over it and ran to turn it in. I ended up taking 1st place!

Another cook team (GB’s) had his FEC 100 break during the pouring rain. We tried our best to fix it, to no avail. Gordon stuffed everything on one cooker and proceeded to win 1st place pork.

If you want the answer to winning “Peoples Choice” you will have to talk to Josh with Budmeisters. He has the answer, but he won’t tell me. Brisket – you gotta love brisket! Flats, points, dry-aged, family cut, natural prime, USDA prime, packer cut, certified organic, choice, select, CAB and just what is a WAGYU?

One thing I know for sure is I can screw up an $18 brisket just as good as I can a $93 brisket. This is a true story. Craig from Firehouse BBQ took his brisket to the turn-in table and realized he had it in the box upside down. He flipped it over, turned it in and won 1st place.

I read a book called “Peace, Love and BBQ” by Mike Mills to pick up some important tips. One chapter covered the topic of consuming alcoholic beverages. It basically advises you to let the other guys do the heavy drinking so you can have an edge.

I put this to the test with a team that likes Bloody Marys. I brought several brands of high-dollar vodka, along with some Zing Zang and all the fixings for some first-class cocktails. Then I slipped off to bed, proud of the fact that my friends were well on their way to a good time drinking (and maybe a less than stellar cooking performance).

At 3 a.m. one of my good friends was still going strong. He does not remember any of the cooking he did. Thanks to photos taken on stage, however, he does remember taking 6th place chicken, 1st place ribs, 1st place pork, 1st place brisket and Grand Champion!

This does not work with beer either. I brought several cases of Mississippi Mud to a good friend of mine and he proceeded to go on a winning streak that propelled him to “Team of the Year.”

I do not recommend putting your food in a box upside down, and I hope your cookers don’t break down, forcing you to cook under pressure. I also think you should save all of your alcohol until Saturday after turn-in time – or at least most of it. I will say this: Cook often and enjoy BBQ. Life don’t get no better. Key: “DAL” (Dead-@$$ Last); CAB (Certified Angus Beef); WAGYU (American version of Japanese Kobe beef fetching around $100 per brisket).

Dana “Big Papa” Hillis is a member of the Florida BBQ Association (FBA) and lives in Lake Placid. He is the head cook of “Big Papa’s Country Kitchen” and a regular name called to the stage at FBA competitions. He can be reached at:

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