Michael Harmon has been around barbecue all of his life. Pig roasts were a staple of his Lowcountry childhood. He started barbecuing on his own about 10 years ago for friends. He figured he was pretty good at it. So a little more than a year ago, he started to take it seriously. Turns out, he was very good.
The Okatie resident came in third place in the S.C. Barbeque Association's state championships last month.
"A lot of the guys had 10 to 40 years experience on me," he said. "I think we did really well."
Harmon and his team, the Palmetto Smokehouse, will be in Beaufort this weekend at Bands, Brews and BBQ, a sanctioned association judging event. Plainspoken and straightforward, he cooks because he loves it, but he also loves the competition.
"I'm very competitive," he said. "I like to win."
Harmon, a Thomas Heyward Academy graduate, cooks up his barbecue at his secluded house near Callawassie Island. He runs a landscape company by day. But barbecue has started to become more and more of his business.
He joined the state barbecue association a little more than a year ago. His first full year of competition was last year. The state championships are a mix of quality and quantity. Thirty barbecue contests were held last year. Teams earn points by placing in the top 10.
More than 180 teams competed, many of those having decades of experience. On occasion, a team like Harmon's has sudden success on this level, association president Lake High said.
"He's done real well, real fast," he said.
Including the state contests, Harmon traveled to 42 events last year. He tinkered with his cooking methods until he got it right, the meat juicy and flavored by the cherry wood he smokes with. He started winning big in the second half of the season. He won three of five contests in the upstate with a vinegar sauce. For other contests, he used a sweet red sauce his teammate makes.
He now travels to competitions in a trailer with restroom, shower and oven to cook meat. Needless to say, "my wife is my biggest supporter," he said.
The next step is the business side of things. He's putting his barbecue and ribs into convenience stores in four counties. He has it stocked at the Callawassie General Store in Beaufort County. Every day, Harmon or his partners are scooping meat onto buns and slicing ribs. He plans on expanding into more stores and one day possibly opening a restaurant. But that might have to wait, given the economy, he said.
This year he plans once again on a rigorous contest schedule both in state and out. His barbecue business means he's constantly perfecting his pork. To make it, you just can't wait to cook until the competition. There's always a way to be getting better.
"We're cooking all day," he said. "We're always tweaking something."