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Barbecue class fires up possible competitors, backyard cooks alike

ST. CHARLES - Chris Marks held up the naked spare rib bone, drawing the attention of all in the room.

Moments earlier, the bone had been covered in pork rib meat - steaming, smoked barbecued rib meat, part of a long slab pulled fresh from Marks' smoker.

Covered, that is, until Marks had bit into it, and cleaned

"See that?" Marks said, with a big grin. "That is what you want to see when you're done eating. Nothing but clean bone."

Saturday, Marks, a nationally recognized barbecue competition pitmaster and general manager of Ace of Hearts BBQ Specialties, of Kansas City, came to St. Charles to share some of the tricks of the barbecue trade to a group of students willing to pay for the chance to themselves become better barbecue cooks.

About 16 students from the Tri-Cities and elsewhere in the Chicago area attended the class at St. Charles' Charlestowne Mall, with instruction provided both inside a vacant storefront inside the mall and around Marks' barbecue smoker grill, situated just outside the storefront's exterior service entrance.

The class was hosted by the organizers of the second annual Firin' Up the Fox barbecue competition. That event is scheduled to be held on July 5-7 in St. Charles.

Last year, the barbecue competition was staged as part of St. Charles' Pride of the Fox Riverfest. But the competition proved so popular, drawing 29 contestants, that organizers believed the event should stand on its own this year, said Julie Farris, executive director of Pride of the Fox.

To help grow not just participation, but quality of entries and judging, Firin' Up the Fox organizers opted to hold classes, taught by Marks, to help participants increase their barbecue IQ, Farris said.

"We're hoping the people participating in these classes could move up into competition, or even maybe be a judge for the competition," Farris said.

Saturday's class focused on ribs and chicken, while another session Sunday would spotlight brisket and butts.

Marks dished out heaping portions of advice while walking his students through the hands-on practice of preparing their meat for the smoker, and achieving barbecue that leaves meat flavorful and tender, and leaves bones clean.

He noted, for instance, that really delicious barbecue depends on cooking the meat "low and slow" - which, for ribs, meant smoking the meat on indirect heat at about 225 degrees for 4-6 hours.

And he admonished students to resist the urge to look at the meat as it cooks.

"It's all about keeping the lid shut," Marks said. "If you're looking, you're not cooking."

Marks said he travels regularly to the Chicago area to compete in barbecue contests and to teach barbecue classes.

He said he teaches about 30 classes a year.

Some participants in the class said they came to pick up tips from Marks to improve their chances at claiming a trophy at barbecue competitions.

Others, including Mary O'Connor, of Palos Park, came to improve their ability to judge barbecue well.

O'Connor said she judges numerous contests each year, often organizing out-of-town getaways around the barbecue competitions.

"This is useful knowledge if you enjoy competing, enjoy judging, or just want to use it in your backyard," she said.

The prospects of enhancing their backyard barbecue is what drew Brad Zeman, of St. Charles, and his two sons, Stephen and Ben.

Stephen noted they had "almost zero experience in barbecue."

"Dinner will be a lot better from now on," Zeman said. "Or, at least, now we don't have an excuse if it's not."

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