Hamilton resident Brian Cordeiro and his team, Crotchwood, compete at the New Jersey State Barbecue Competition in Wildwood.
Brian Cordeiro developed a taste for barbecue at a young age.
A travel baseball player, the Hamilton resident often found himself down south, sampling the finest flavors the genre had to offer. Unfortunately for him, Cordeiro always came home to New Jersey, where quality barbecue joints have run few and far between.
“The barbecue just tasted great down there,” he said. “There aren’t too many places around here, so I just decided to start making it myself.”
He started messing around on his parents’ gas grill in his early teens, and he hasn’t dropped the tongs since. His friends, he said, were quick to advocate his new hobby.
“They encouraged it because they wanted to eat it,” he said.
Cordeiro’s enthusiasm for barbecue continued into adulthood. He and his wife Colleen, a fellow barbecue lover, started making a yearly trip down to Wildwood for the New Jersey State Barbecue Competition after the festival’s inception in 1999. It runs in conjunction with the Anglesea Blues Festival.
“We’re huge barbecue fans,” he said. “When the state tournament first started, we went down to the first one. We went down every year as spectators. Show me where good barbecue is, and I’m going to show up and eat it. I continued going, and we kept talking about actually entering.”
They made the move from onlookers to competitors in 2011. Cordeiro and seven of his Monroe-located friends and family—otherwise known as Team Crotchwood—now travel down to Wildwood each year, meat and all, to take part in the tournament. This year’s festival ran July 12–14.
Each year, thousands of attendees pack five blocks of Olde New Jersey Avenue in North Wildwood for three days of barbecue, beer and blues. Between the vendors and competitors, it’s hard to move without smelling a pulled pork sandwich, roasted corn on the cob or even a stray funnel cake. The live music, set up on a stage at the head of the festival, is just as omnipresent as the aromas.
“Instead of making a big mess in our yard, they let us do it in theirs,” Cordeiro said.
Cordeiro, a woodworker, defines crotchwood as a swirling wood that is “highly prized” in his craft. He acknowledged that the name conjures up “a lot of funny things,” but said he had good intentions. Shortly before the team’s first competition, a close friend tragically passed away. His nickname was Crotchwood.
“He thought it was hysterical, so we started calling him Crotchwood,” Cordeiro said. “It just kind of stuck. When we formed the team in 2011, we decided to name it after him. It’s a nice way to remember somebody—having fun, eating, drinking.”
In addition to the state tournament, Crotchwood participates in the Yard’s Brewing Company annual competition in Philadelphia. The Wildwood contest, though, is the big one.
Team Crotchwood spends about two weeks before the competition making sure all their spices, meats, liquids, sauces and utensils are ready to go. They go over recipes, denote who is bringing what and even do a practice run in the weeks leading up to the trip.
“The state tournament is tough,” Cordeiro said. “A lot of the competitors are restaurateurs or caterers. This is how they brand themselves, by winning tournaments. It’s a nice trophy to put up in their restaurants. There are a lot of good competitors. I would say 10 to 20 percent are amateurs, but everybody takes it seriously. Realistically, we don’t do this 365 days a year like some of these other guys.”
Many of the professionals and even some of the amateurs, he said, cook with smokers that can cost upwards of $20,000. Cordeiro and his co-captain, Mike Van de Water, built their own.
“We made our rigs in Brooklyn,” he said. “It’s kind of more of a backwoods smoker. It’s really low-tech, and it brings a certain flavor to the food. It’s an all-wood smoker, so it adds a little more smokiness, whereas charcoal doesn’t seem to. We use mostly oak and maple to smoke the wood. Something like a brisket that’s cooking for 14 hours gets a really unique flavor.”
Teams compete in seven categories at the state competition: sauce, dessert, Iron Chef, ribs, chicken, pork and brisket. The first three are prepared and judged on the second day of the competition, usually on a Saturday.
Around 11 p.m. that night, though, is when things started to get serious, as submission for the four remaining meats began at 11:30 the next morning. These are what determines who wins the overall tournament.
The cooking got going just as the festival closed for the night. Competitors set up shop in a parking lot along the beach, and the smoke rose from over 60 tents as each team prepared their smokers. The music stopped, and the street was cleared, so it’s eerily quiet during the first hour or so. It’s so quiet that a number of competitors turned on their smokers and went to sleep, some even in cots or beds they bring.
Cordeiro said it livens up once the meat goes in, though — especially around 2 a.m.
“When the bars close, we get a lot of people over here thinking we’re going to serve them food,” he said. “Last year, we had a guy come up to us and say he’d give us $10 if we made him a burger.”
He didn’t give in.
“Maybe if he offered $20,” Van de Water said.
Though Crotchwood has never placed overall or in any of the meat categories, the team’s sauce finished in eighth place last year. In 2011, the squad placed eighth in Iron Chef, a category named after the television show where the teams find out that day what protein they’re working with, and they have to prepare it within a specified amount of time.
Cordeiro said winning is not Crotchwood’s main goal. He and his teammates go down each year to bounce ideas off of each other and keep everybody involved. Cordeiro’s uncle handles the sauce, while Colleen usually prepares the dessert. Van de Water does the ribs.
“That’s kind of more the reason we do it every year, to be with the family,” Cordeiro said. “We’d like to win, but it’s really about getting together. It’s like Christmas time in the summer. We’ve done alright. They keep letting us come back.”