When you win first place at your first-ever barbecue competition, there’s a better than average chance you’re going to compete again.
That’s how Peachtree City’s Tina Cannon got started back in 2009 at a festival on Lake Martin in Alabama. After competing in and winning many more challenges across the country, she celebrated her fifth BBQ anniversary this year with an exciting $10K win on Travel Channel’s “American Grilled” show.
Tina says she’s just getting started.
Tina and her Husband Bobby were encouraged to give competitive grilling a go that first year when a roofer doing work in the neighborhood saw and smelled what the Cannons were cooking on their Weber smoker and told them they should consider entering the Lake Martin event. They did, and they won.
“When we won, we just couldn’t believe it,” Tina said.
There’s more to that story, however. Tina and Bobby say that their first competition also included extremely rainy weather, vicious fire ants and a beer-fueled brawl that took place only a few feet away from their setup.
Despite those potential distractions, they still caught the BBQ bug. Winning helped.
Tina, a degreed culinary artist and caterer, says she has always enjoyed expressing her Southern flair through her barbecue, but 2009 is the first time she really considered pitting her pork (and chicken and beef) against other pit masters and mistresses.
On that latter point, Tina notes that competitive barbecuing is mainly manly, in that generally her competitors are men. This pops up as an issue every now and again, such as during the “American Grilled” competition this summer in Savannah when Tina had to shell shrimp using man-sized plastic gloves, which are the only ones supplied to her and her three, all-male competitors.
Never mind that, though. Tina’s little lady hands took home the prize.
With that prize money, the Cannons visited Disney World in September, they launched three bottled varieties of Tina’s own Sparks Fly BBQ Sauce (available at www.atlantabbqstore.com), and Tina purchased a fancy pair of red cowgirl boots.
Tina says she has been contacted by another cable television cooking competition show very recently, and she may apply to be on it, but in the meantime she and Bobby have their sights set on the Oct. 18 BBQ Classic at the Wings Over North Georgia Air Show in Rome. After that, they will compete in three back-to-back November weekend barbecue events, including the famous 33rd Annual Big Pig Jig, Nov. 6-8, down in Vienna and the Nov. 21-22 National BBQ Cup competition in Cumming.
Tina and her “The Pit Crew” team took 3rd of more than 60 teams at last year’s National BBQ Cup.
“That was like a win for us,” Bobby said. “That was huge.”
Since those early days, The Pit Crew has become an official competitor within the Florida BBQ Association and the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which is the world’s largest barbecue and grilling organization claiming 19,000 members worldwide. Tina and Bobby have also become official event judges, which they say gives them an advantage, because they better know what other judges will expect.
“What you cook in a competition and what you cook at home is very different,” Tina said, noting that competition barbecue meat is never allowed to be “fall-off-the-bone” tender. And the skin can’t be too loose or at all crunchy.
“They’re only taking one bite, or maybe two,” Bobby said. “And you’ve got to wow them in that one or two bites.”
Once Tina and Bobby perfected their award-winning recipe and technique, they documented it all, and Bobby, who Tina calls “the technical guy”, developed a color-coded timeline that helps The Pit Crew on competition day keep everything organized. Whether they’re competing in the ribs category, or whether they’re also doing pulled pork, chicken and beef as well, a minute-by-minute plan is laid out well before the competition.
And yes, just like any winning competitor, Tina practices her grilling and smoking before competitions.
For the benefit of their neighbors and friends, we repeat: Tina practices her grilling and smoking before competitions.
Samples of Tina’s chicken drumsticks and pork ribs recently tested by members of this newspaper proved to be blue ribbon worthy.
While Tina is fairly open about what she uses on her meats, she keeps a few secrets closely guarded. The same goes for some of her techniques.
Like many serious barbecue competitors, Tina has attended cooking schools and still takes the odd class every now and again. She teaches as well.
A 1981 Fayette County High School graduate, though born in Alabama, Tina met Bobby, who is from New Jersey, when they both lived in the same apartment complex years ago on the north side of Atlanta. After they married, they moved to Peachtree City, which is where Tina spent much of her childhood.
Tina says she would love to see a competitive barbecue event pop up in Fayette County some day, but in the meantime she is considering bringing her custom barbecue rig and competition smoker, both bright yellow, to one of next year’s local festivals. It may be a good opportunity for old friend to catch up and try some of her sauces.
And by the way, a Dollar from the sale of each bottle of sauce goes to Fayette County charities. You can buy one bottle for $7 or three for $20.
You can keep up with Tina and her barbecuing adventures at www.thepitcrewbbq.wordpress.com.