A family tradition: Barbecuer to defend home turf at Autumnfest

By Ryan Cornell

WOODSTOCK — Ask Craig George where his favorite barbecue comes from and it’ll be like you just asked him what the meaning of life is. After a long pause and some mental jousting, he’s still unable to produce a solid answer.

But ask him if he recalls the first time he ever bit into barbecue and the answer pours out quicker than KC Masterpiece out of a bottle.

He said he remembers eating barbecue chicken as a 4-year-old at his grandfather, “Pop Pop’s,” house.

George would jump out of the pool, soaking wet, and see Pop Pop cooking the chickens at his Weber kettle.

Pop Pop, or Henry Holler, lived in a big white house on Ox Road, directly across from the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds. George said he would stay there during fair week, heading to the grounds with his grandfather nearly every night, seeing the sights and eating at Shaffer’s Barbecue.

“The smell of barbecue chicken cooking at the fair brings back all that,” he said.

Today, George, 35, will be back at the fairgrounds “literally 100 yards away” from that swimming pool competing in the Shenandoah County Autumnfest’s barbecue competition. Not only will he be cooking against some of the best barbecue masters in the country, but he’ll also be defending his home turf as the lone participant from Woodstock.

Together with his “brother in smoke,” Mike Orsenigo, their team, Pop Pop’s Chicken and Pig — named after George’s grandfather who died in 2010 — will be among 40 teams competing.

Each team will compete in four categories: chicken, ribs, brisket and pork (Boston butt). After the teams finish cooking their meats and submit their boxes to be blindly critiqued by certified judges, the scores of the four categories will be added together to determine the overall champion.

Before moving back to his hometown, George spent a decade in Charlotte, N.C., where he landed his current job as partner of civil engineering firm DPR Associates, and learned the southern style of cooking.

“It’s a balance between what I learned from the last 10 years in North Carolina and what I grew up with — the barbecue culture of the valley,” he said.

Orsenigo, who hails from the tar heel state, and George reflect the barbecue culture of the poultry-heavy Shenandoah Valley and pork-strong North Carolina.

“He’s just as obsessed with it as I am,” George said about Orsenigo. “I can show you texts going back and forth for hours where we’re bouncing ideas off each other.”

It all started on New Year’s Day 2012 due to some misfortunate circumstances. Two years ago, a friend of George’s had a daughter who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. George decided to hold a fundraiser for her cause, Helping Hands 4 Morgan, and cooked barbecue pork while asking for donations.

The fundraiser raised more than $3,000 and George caught the barbecue bug. He’s been competing ever since.

At a competition in Inwood, W.Va., last month, Pop Pop’s Chicken and Pig ranked third overall, beating the defending national champion.

The team placed fifth out of 26 teams in competitions at Winchester and Shenandoah this year.

But George said winning is just an added perk of competing. He said he mainly does it to meet other people who also love to barbecue.

When he was a student at Virginia Tech, George would go to NASCAR races and would enjoy tailgating more than the event itself.

“Going back to when I was able to drive in college, we’d go to races and cook a pig,” he said. “A lot of the time, I didn’t even go to the race because I enjoyed the social aspect.”

At last year’s Autumnfest, Pop Pop’s placed no higher than 20th place, but George said he’s confident heading into today’s competition after “learning tons” in the past year.

“At one time or another, we’ve either beaten or competed with every team that I’ll be competing with this weekend,” he said. “A lot of them are our friends. So I wouldn’t say I’m nervous.”

And for amateur grillmasters wielding the tongs for football season, George has some advice.

“Slow down and enjoy it,” said George, whose briskets cook between 7 and 8 hours. “The food is done when it’s done.”

Autumnfest will be held from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. today at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds in Woodstock.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com