by Allie Higgins
A Piggly Wiggly parking lot in Warsaw, N.C., might not be the most obvious place to spend a sweltering summer afternoon, but it’s a great spot to meet Raleigh’s own Ann Edmondson.
As coordinator of the North Carolina Whole Hog Barbecue State Championship in September, Edmondson is in her element this day: the intense heat of a pig cook-off qualifier round. Over her shoulder, teams of burly barbecue masters are busy preparing their pigs. These competitors are serious: With one chief cook and up to three assistants, they come equipped with hog-related team names, logos, decals, and personalized barbecue team gear.
Edmondson, 40, a Meredith College graduate, wife, and mother of two, is their petite sergeant. After seven years as a lobbyist, Edmondson was ready for a new challenge. She got it. The whole-hog rules setter, judge, and standard-bearer: As director of marketing and communications for the North Carolina Pork Council, Edmondson is all of this and more. She is the pork enforcer.
“I don’t really strike an intimidating figure,” Edmondson says with a grin. “But sometimes they take me on, sometimes they don’t.”
She needs to be diplomatic, and she needs to be nimble. Some days of the week, she’s promoting pork manufacturers, and others she spends tasting and judging 80 plates of whole-hog barbecue. And while at least part of her job would make the average mouth water, this Raleighite regularly works with animals that run on four legs and squeal, and that other unique breed: barbecue competitors.
These fired-up men, and a few women, whose opinions are often stronger than their vinegar-based sauces, have no doubt about who’s in charge. Regardless, they seem to agree: this five-foot-nothin’ pig cop maintains a sweet disposition, no matter how spicy the company she finds herself in.
Ann “is very interested in any suggestions and will work hard to solve any problems,” says barbecue competitor Jim Bristle.
In these circles, reputations – and news – travels fast.
“It could be deemed the swine vine,” Edmondson says, instead of “the grape vine.” And it’s abuzz right now, as the Whole Hog Barbecue State Championship approaches. It’s a responsibility she has worked for months to prepare.
This year, the championship will take place in Raleigh to coincide with the Wide Open Bluegrass festival Sept. 27-28, which is part of the week-long International Bluegrass Music Association event. “We thought it would be a good fit,” she says. “People who like bluegrass tend to like barbecue, people who like barbecue tend to like bluegrass.”
Thirty teams of dedicated barbecue cookers will set up camp in the parking lot between Fayetteville Street and the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. They’re the cream of the crop, teams that worked hard for the right to compete, either as past state championship winners or as top scorers in one of this year’s smaller local competitions.
After they arrive on Sept. 27 and prepare their cookers and designated areas, they’ll report to a 7 p.m. chefs meeting. That’s when each head chef will pull a number from a hat to indicate the order in which the team receives its pig, and when it will be judged Saturday morning.
About 9 p.m., whole hogs weighing close to 100 pounds will be delivered to each of the 30 competing teams. “No matter what contest it is, as soon as those pigs are delivered, the whole attitude shifts,” Edmondson says.
She makes the rounds soon after the delivery. Participants will alert her of anything they do not like about the swine that is now the guest of honor at their cooker –a crack in the skin or a broken rib. “I make note of that, because it makes them feel better if I tell the judges,” Edmondson says. “The judges inevitably say it doesn’t matter.” She’s just trying to keep the peace.
Some chefs will take as much as an hour to prepare the pig before it goes into the cooker. Once the pigs are inside the cookers, chefs vary on their next moves. Some may open the cooker and turn the pig, some might not take any steps beyond checking the pig’s temperature before the judges arrive. Each chef has his own method when it comes to this stage of the process, Edmondson explains. All of them stay up all night doing it.
By Saturday, these previously laid-back participants will have transformed into sleep-deprived, focused competitors. The morning will begin with an on-site judging, performed by at least three judges. At each pig cooker, the hog will be cut along its belly and splayed open. Judges will check the temperature of the meat, eat a piece of barbecue, and finally have a chunk of the pork in the cook’s sauce. The on-site judging sets N.C. Pork Council’s events apart from other barbecue contests, most of which do not have the judges go from cooker to cooker.
After the on-site judging is finished, a panel of local characters and culinary experts will complete a blind taste test. Officials will combine the totals of the on-site judging score and the blind taste test score to determine the winner. Winners will receive trophies and prize money – to go towards new cookin’ gear, no doubt.
“It’s fun to see somebody just really do well, but it’s also fun to see somebody who has never won it win it,” Edmondson says. Despite all of the competitive tension, Edmondson finds joy in the colorful characters she works with.
“They are so many personalities,” Edmondson says. “And even when they take me to task – do I love it? No. Does it hurt my feelings? Sometimes. But it’s fun.”
It’s a tough competition, to say the least, but that word – tough – won’t come up much with this crowd. Tender, juicy, crispy, maybe – but never tough, she says.
“I just want the best cook to win.”