Its 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday and a sort of tent village has sprung up along a grassy strip in front of Ray Price Harley-Davidson in downtown Raleigh. Three times a year, the dealership sponsors a cooking contest. On this day, its a wings cook-off.
If any man has a target on his back, it is Brad Carter. The head of The Bomb Squad cook team has taken home the first-place prize and $500 every year for the last three years. As Kris Weiss, the dealerships marketing director, gathers the teams for roll call, he points out Carter and the reporter tailing him to the other teams and mentions his winning record.
Carter jokes: I havent been nervous for four days.
By day, Brad Carter, 42, is a manager at a Carquest store in North Raleigh. On the weekends, he and his wife, Courtney, 32, are competitive cooks. They did their first contest a ribs cook-off at the Bass Pro Shops in Concord when Courtney was seven months pregnant with their now-6-year-old daughter. I took the whole house with us, he recalls.
Even though they didnt win, Brad Carter says, We enjoyed it. We thought we could do better.
The next year, they won second place.
The couple enjoys these contests at Ray Price. They dont require overnight trips. They take a half-day at most. The events raise money for Dukes Children Miracle Network. And they get to have fun with their friends. In fact, their friends, Bill and Lois Mercer, make up the core of The Bomb Squad cook team.
This year, there is a disagreement among the team members. They have won the last three years by frying the flour-dredged wings and then tossing them in Brad Carters sweet and spicy sauce. Carter wants to switch to a chipotle barbecue sauce or a sweet and sour sauce.
They wont let me change it, he says.
Bill Mercer replies: I told him: You dont change if its not broken.
So this year, they will stay with tradition: sweet- and spicy-sauced fried wings for the judges, and two choices for spectators, the sweet and spicy sauce and a bourbon barbecue sauce. The spectators, who pay $5 for all the wings they can eat, will pick a peoples choice winner. That winner doesnt get any cash but does get the largest trophy.
A dozen cook teams are set up across from the dealership. Each cluster of tailgating tents houses a team set to grill, smoke or fry 80 pounds of wings each to crispy perfection before saucing them with recipes they describe in minimal detail.
Pilar Smith and Robert Free of Sanford are wearing Hawaiian shirts, and she has donned a chicken-leg hat. This is their first cooking contest.
Our friends were coming to this event, and Ive always wanted to be in a cook-off, Smith says. I dont expect to win with these other people.
The intimidating others include the Price is Right team, which is burning hickory logs down to coals to smoke its wings. The Redneck Scientific team is grilling wings on three grills made from 55-gallon barrels, which the team also sells starting at $400 a piece. And the Grillin and Chillin team, sponsored by Leesville Tap Room, is hoping to sway voters with not only its spicy grilled wings but also by serving snow cones on this hot day.
The race to taste
Things start out slowly inside The Bomb Squad tent. Since the team is frying its wings, cooking doesnt have to start until 11:30 a.m. The morning is spent setting up, drinking Yuenglings and Natural Lights and chatting with friends who come to help. Courtney Carter is hanging a banner that reads: The Bomb Squad. So Good ...Well Blow You Away. Brad Carter is trying to fix a ball bearing on the trailer carrying all his grilling equipment. The trailer was smoking ominously as they parked it this morning. A short time later, an employee from a nearby Carquest store shows up with a new ball bearing.
I like how these guys roll. Theyve got a parts store on call, says Brad McSherry, a member of the Grillin and Chillin team, which is next to The Bomb Squads encampment.
At about 11:15 a.m., Carter heats up the peanut oil in the deep fryers. Each team member has a defined role: Courtney Carter dredges the wings in a sugar-pepper-garlic-flavored flour. Brad Carter fries them in one of three deep fryers going at the same time. The Mercers toss them in the sauce. Their daughter, Amanda, serves them to the crowd.
Before the crowd starts, the team does a test batch.
Mercers verdict: They need more time in the fryer: Thirty seconds more.
Brad Carter retorts: I dont tell you how to sauce.
Mercer insists, since the wings are larger than normal: Thirty seconds more and its done.
Soon a foursome of Hooters waitresses fetches the entries for the judges. Minutes later, the public queues up for wings. Over the next 90 minutes, about 675 people will eat almost 1,000 pounds of wings while ogling motorcycles and cyclists along the street.
The Bomb Squad team falls into a rhythm: dredge, fry, sauce, serve. There is the singsong refrain of Amanda Mercers pitch to the crowd: Sweet and spicy or bourbon barbecue? Vote for No. 2, referring to their tent number for the peoples choice ballot. Within 70 minutes, they run out of wings.
The men, who have sweated through their shirts while standing next to boiling oil in 90-degree heat, change into fresh ones as they wait for the winners to be announced. They crack open beers. They chat with friends from work and church who have come out to support them. Carter takes a moment to finish fixing his trailers ball bearing.
McSherry of the Grillin and Chillin team, who loaned some tools for the job, says to Carter: I hate that we had to beat you.
Carter retorts: Im not sure you beat me. They might have, referring to McSherrys experienced teammates, Tony Klisurich and Mike Wilklow.
A few minutes later, Kris Weiss, the dealerships marketing director, calls the cook teams together to announce the winners. The band plays a drumroll as Weiss calls out the winners: third place to Price is Right, second place to Freedom Biker Church, and first place to Grillin and Chillin.
Carter and his team smile and clap for their cook-team neighbors.
For those who dont know it, theres been an upset thats occurred, Weiss explains to the crowd: The Bomb Squad had won three years in a row.
Then Weiss announces the peoples choice winner: Site No. 2. The Bomb Squad! They lost their first-place spot, but they won peoples choice.
The team members hug, pat one another on the back and get their picture taken with the Hooters waitresses and Ray Price himself.
For a printable copy of the recipes, click the links: