Packing up their grill, Eric and Cindi Mitchell began their near-20 hour drive up the Atlantic Coast from Lynchburg, Tenn., back home to Bedford early last week. Hurricane Sandy was practically in their rear-view mirror the whole time.
Lynchburg was the site of the Jack Daniels Barbecue competition, where the Mitchells’ barbecue team Yabba Dabba Que was competing for a second year. An hour after they crossed from Connecticut into Massachusetts, roads and highways were being closed down except for non-essential vehicles in preparation for Sandy’s landfall.
“The Jack is at the end of the year so it’s sort of the climax [of barbecue season]. There are some things to do still, but after that competition, it’s about relaxing,” Eric Mitchell said.
But the Mitchells never got a chance to relax. They unloaded perishables from the trailer shortly after arriving home on Oct. 27. Turning on the television the following day, scenes of sea-battering were coming in from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. They immediately decided to get back on the road and head toward the disaster.
“As barbecuers, it’s a little like our natural environment. We compete in all types of weather, with limited power and water,” Eric Mitchell said.
When tornadoes struck Joplin, Mo., in May 2011, three barbecuers from Missouri marshaled fellow competition barbecue teams from eight nearby states as part of a relief effort that became known as Operation BBQ Relief. They served 120,000 meals to the devastated community over two weeks and have since responded to events in tornado alley this year and the Gulf during Hurricane Isaac.
Working through New England Barbecue Society phone contacts, the Mitchells learned of a OBR effort being coordinated by Cleveland-based Rob Marion of 2 Worthless Nuts barbecue. That day, they loaded up the trailer and began the drive back.
By Thursday, they reached Forked River, N.J., a town on Barnegat Bay.
“There were 10 miles where it was haunting,” Eric Mitchell said. “There was no power and few gas stations. We had waited two hours to top off in a Nyack, N.Y., rest area and saw gas lines backed up nine-tenths of a mile.”
“Seeing it first hand was mind boggling,” Cindi Mitchell added. “We had seen it on TV, but the real thing is very different.”
Over the next three days, Yabba Dabba Que’s OBR group made 3,000 meals per day, some boxed for take-out or served backyard barbecue style, and more still for bulk deliveries of 400 or 500 at a time, sent out with supplies of water.
Yabba Dabba Que cooks on a Big Green Egg, a ceramic, Japanese kamado-style charcoal grill. It’s the 18-incher on which they compete and have cooked a lot of food, including a crème brulee that was awarded a perfect score at Kansas City’s American Royal Invitational in 2009.
Even with the best tools, natural disaster situations call for some improvisational cooking. Eric Mitchell said that while competitions throw all sorts of cooking curveballs, disaster situations cause more significant, real-life problems, like knocked-out refrigerators and powerless charge card machines at Restaurant Depot, BJ’s Wholesale Club and other suppliers. Without ice and meat, barbecues are moot.
“It is a logistical process to get an effort going. Crew chiefs often spend more time on the phone than cooking. They are coordinating with where supplies are and looking at where to go next,” Eric Mitchell said.
By Friday, other mid-Atlantic and Northeast teams streaming in were bringing donations of paper towels and canned goods and being directed to efforts in Hoboken, and later Brooklyn and Coney Island. Yabba Dabba Que moved onto Neptune Township next, 45 minutes up from Forked River.
Barbecue trucks and trailers usually set up in 20- by 20-foot squares for competitions and they did the same with OBR, setting up cooking sites in a baseball field and senior centers. The idea is to be accessible, Eric Mitchell said.
“There were a lot of local volunteers. A group of kids who had nothing to do came out and helped for awhile,” he said. “So many people and teams wanted to help, but they were told to stay back. OBR can’t have 35 show up and do something, they needed to start a flow.”
They had that flow going earlier this week. Teams have been switching out, like Yabba Dabba Que did, and helping to contribute to 31,000-and-counting meals. Those meals, perhaps rougher around the edges compared to competition-level food, are nonetheless prepped with passion.
“Sure, these are people who cook for blind judging during competitions, but they also cook for friends and family. They have a passion with cooking and feeding,” Eric Mitchell said, after returning home and getting some much-needed rest. “We are doing what we enjoy doing ... it’s something more than physical nourishing, it’s a nourishment of the soul.”
Seeing the people who are affected is the biggest takeaway, Cindi Mitchell said.
“An 8-year-old boy who had been eating nothing but peanut butter and jelly said he wished he could give something more substantive, but could only donate a one dollar bill. We told him to keep it, but he insisted, ate some food, and asked to get a spot in line the next day,” she said.