Alabama barbecue enthusiast takes hobby to the next level

Alabama barbecue enthusiast takes hobby to the next level
Richard George of Madison has a smoker made from an old Jim Beam bourbon barrel in his backyard barbecue he dubbed "Ricky Shack." (Courtesy of Joshua Berry)

Many guys like to grill in the backyard, but Richard George of north Alabama has taken his hobby a step farther.

Make that two steps.

George became a master judge certified by the prestigious Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) by judging at many competitions and taking grilling classes.

His experience as a judge inspired him to try his own barbecuing skills by building a shed called the “Ricky Shack” to cook for family and friends.

“We started building and kept going and put a roof on it,” George said. He hired a carpenter to use old barn wood and reclaimed windows for a rustic look. Family memorabilia includes a fly rod, hay hooks and duck decoys.

The “shack” name is misleading – George went whole hog on it with two Big Green Eggs, a Blackstone Griddle, gas smoker, miniature pizza oven and an old Jim Beam barrel customized with a grill and three air intakes that give the food “a wonderful bourbon smell and slight taste,” he said.

As a master judge for the Kansas City Barbeque Society, Alabama’s Richard George has eaten a lot of good barbecue at competitions around the Southeast, but there have been some misadventures as well. (Alabama NewsCenter/file)

George cooks wings, shrimp, sausage, hamburgers and more. His specialties are salmon on a cedar plank and pork tenderloin. George has been helping cook and provide to-go meals for neighbors, family and friends during the COVID-19 pandemic while maintaining social distancing.

“It’s my hobby; I love it. We enjoy entertaining. It’s kind of my hangout now,” he said.

His friend John Bice of Huntsville has been lucky enough to be invited to Ricky Shack. The windows are operated by a pulley system, Bice explained, and an opening at the ceiling allows hot air and smoke to escape.

“That’s indicative of his expertise,” said Bice, who described the cedar-plank salmon as “wonderful.”

“It’s not unusual for him to have a couple of items cooked sequentially,” Bice said.

So much smoke billowed out of Ricky Shack at Christmas that a neighbor called to see if George’s house was on fire.

George, a retired Regions Bank vice president, had a client who was a barbecue judge.

“He said if you really want to learn to cook, you should learn to judge,” George said, noting he got in touch with KCBS five or six years ago.

George is one of 1,760 KCBS master judges, said CEO Emily Detwiler. The group has more than 20,000 members in 42 countries and sanctions nearly 500 contests in a typical nonpandemic year.

“It’s like a calling” to be a judge, Detwiler said.

“You judge 30 contests, cook with a professional team and take an examination to become a master judge, and I’ve done all that,” George said.

“I’ve judged all over – Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia. I’ve been a lot of different places and met a lot of people,” he said. “I spent a number of spring and summer weekends on the road going back and forth to different contests.”

He’s had plenty of great food and a couple of “tasting fiascoes.”

Sometimes an upset cook who knows he or she can’t win will “cover their entry with cayenne pepper,” George said.

“You’re about to judge and you’re judging six entries,” George said. To recover, “you eat a lot of crackers and you drink a lot of water.”

This story originally appeared on the This is Alabama website.

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