I look down at my hands. They are visibly shaking. I can barely hold the third cigarette I’ve smoked in two minutes or get a firm grasp on the bottle of beer I’m chasing my smokes with. It is nine in the morning on a cold rain-soaked spring day in Memphis and I have just discovered what it feels like to compete in a timed reality cooking show. Honestly, it doesn’t feel good.
I hate what I made. I’m embarrassed at my lack of creativity. I should get the ax immediately. Oh, Lord, please let me last another round.
American Grilled is a Travel Channel show about grilling. I know all about grilling. I get paid to do it. I am competing against three guys half my age. That I even made it to this show is a friggin’ miracle. Maybe they were going for the geezer demographic. I’m okay with that. I’m here and hundreds of other applicants are not.
First round: Smoked bologna and red cabbage
I made a list before the competition of about 450 items native to Tennessee that the producers might choose for this show. Bologna and cabbage were not on the list, but there they are under the lid of the mystery grill. Shit. The boys and I got a quick 60-second tour of the “larder” – everything from spices to dairy to, yes, beer we can use to create our slap-dashed ill-thought-out 20-minute recipes. Okay. I’ll just say mine was slap dashed and ill thought out. I couldn’t see what those boys were doing.
Those boys. We awkwardly met two days before at the first producers’ meeting. Clint Cantwell is a pro – the editor of Grilling.Com. Blake Carson owns a skewer company as in the skewers they use to grill meat in Argentinian restaurants. And Kevin Jacques is more of a backyarder like me. The first day of shooting – starting at 7 a.m. – should have been, well, shooting but constant tornado warnings and torrential downpours had the four of us either huddled under an E-Z Up or sitting in the Hampton Inn hotel lobby across the street.
The show staff confiscates our phones. There’s nothing to do but talk to each other. We talk. And talk. And talk. Hey, this is kind of like the longest cocktail party you’ve ever been to but without the cocktails. The hotel staff feels sorry for us. They give us free breakfast. After eight hours and a thorough review of each other’s life histories, the director calls it a day and we retreat to our hotel without a single frame shot.
Twenty minutes is like 20 seconds:
From my perspective, here’s how the first round went. I lug the five-pound chub of bologna back to my station, which is about four feet wide. I turn to get my knife and the chub falls on the ground right in front of the cameraman who will be in my face the entire time. I expect him to be a good Southern gentleman and pick it up for me but I quickly realize that there are no social graces in reality TV. And no crying, either. I decide to cut the bologna into strips to make “croutons,” season them with BBQ rub and flash grill them on this incinerator thingie at the end of the grill. Put them on, turn around to cut the cabbage, turn back and they are burned. Shit. People are going to see this on national television. Shit.
All I can think of to do with the cabbage is make some ridiculously uninventive coleslaw. I am an idiot. Why did I think I could do this? I grill the cabbage, slice it up and make a quick citrus dressing. This sounds inventive, at least to me.
Five minutes. I don’t even have plates out yet. I make a second try at the croutons, pile the dressed cabbage on the plates, top them with the bologna and think, “My god, this just sucks.”
We present our dishes to the judges. No crying. Put on a happy face. Sell that sad, lifeless plate of cabbage and bologna. SELL IT. The judges are professional chefs. I understand as my faux chirpy upbeat explanation of my “dish” is coming out of my liar-liar-pants-on-fire mouth that they are just not buying it. And, unlike me, they were born yesterday.
Back in the tent. Beers all around. What the hell. Let’s just inoculate ourselves with some amber liquid courage. There’s a saying in our family: Whatever the situation, no matter how dire, if you can get a joke and a story out of it you’re all good. We’re laughing, somewhat hysterically, me and the boys. We’ll get a story out of this.
We are called out to one of our executions. We stand before the judges. And it’s not my name they call. It’s Kevin. And because I know now after eight hours of camaraderie that as the director of residence halls at the University of North Alabama he has hilarious stories to tell, that he has a lovely wife and precious little boy, that we share many of the same competition BBQ circuit friends – I am just sad. Just like in grade school, I want all of us to get a ribbon.
Round two: Pork belly, moonshine and sorghum.
The lid goes up and it’s three things I had also not put on my extensive list. A massive pork belly, probably at least 10 pounds, a jar of sorghum which I am ashamed to admit as a Southerner that I have never used and cherry moonshine.
And my mind is completely blank. Not a wisp of a thought in there. Breakfast for supper. Pork belly is just bacon on steroids. I’ll make breakfast for supper.
Grab potatoes, onions and peppers. Slice the potatoes, throw them in foil packets and get them on the grill. Put the peppers and onions on the grill. Slice a few strips off the pork belly and heave the rest of it on to the ground. Yes, on to the ground. I realized during the first segment there is no room on that blasted small station. Brush the pork belly with sorghum to kind of/sort of/maybe resemble pig candy and hurl it on the grill. Massive flames. Just like the ones I would like to jump into right now.
The moonshine tastes like cough syrup. Grab some strawberries from the larder, throw them in a pot on the grill, add some of the moonshine and some vinegar to smooth out that awful taste. I shall call this a strawberry moonshine compote.
At the end of the round, Clint comes back to our little tent with a third-degree burn on his thumb from grabbing a hot skillet bare handed. He genuinely looks like he’s about to cry. Mustard. Get me some mustard, I tell a producer. It’s good for burns.
Back to the firing squad. I hear some vaguely encouraging words from the judges and then this from the head judge, David Gaus. “I wish you would have put a fried egg on top of the hash since you’re calling it breakfast for supper.” Oh, oh. I would like to think that I thought of a fried egg, but rejected the notion because that’s not grilling. But it never entered my mind.
And I am out. And, honestly, slightly relieved. It does not occur to me until the long ride back to the hotel that it is my birthday today. I am 62 years old. And I didn’t embarrass myself, except in my own mind. I didn’t quit. And I didn’t cry.
Clint won, as he should have. He smoked us all. He made corn cakes on the grill. He made bacon-wrapped bologna. He made a barbecue sauce with the moonshine that the judges were licking off the plate. Well played, sir.
The judging was imminently fair. The producer/director was kinder than he needed to be. The production staff was warm and encouraging. For two days only the boys and I were “talent.” Would I do it again? Honestly, I’m not sure. Childbirth was less stressful. But I’m glad I got to do it once. And, yes, I would add the damned fried egg to the hash.