There’s something smoking in the state of Denmark—and it’s not herring. In fact, the Danish are enjoying their discovery of a most American cuisine: barbecue. And leading the way is Denmark’s own national barbecue team, which won two medals at the annual World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, Memphis in May, including third place for exotic meat and, to everyone’s surprise, first place for tomato–based sauce. No small feat, considering the fact that it’s considered by many to be the crowning achievement in the barbecue arts in (arguably) the capital of barbecue, with hundreds of competing teams and some $110,000 in prize money.
“This year when we got back, the American ambassador sent me a handwritten note saying how much she appreciated what we did, and how amazing it was that we won the barbecue sauce,” says Stig Pedersen, the founder of the team. He was inspired to form the team four years ago, when he attended the championship in Memphis during a work trip and was overwhelmed by the camaraderie and friendliness that infused the event—at least away from the grill.
“People are a little bit more reserved in Denmark, so you don’t talk so much with your neighbors,” he says. “Then we came to this crazy, crazy lifestyle, where it was clear that a lot of the people were there just for the fun, and you were welcome into every booth. I fell in love with the people and the culture. It’s a culture not in Europe.”
And it was also compelling that the Norwegians—with whom Danes have a centuries–long rivalry—were represented by their own national barbecue team at the event. If the Norwegians could do it, Denmark could do no less, right?
There were several hurdles to assembling a team of Danes who could create championship–level barbecue, however. First off, Pedersen had to find the right teammates, and he wasn’t going to fool around. “It’s eight and a half thousand kilometers to Memphis, and it costs more than $100,000 to go to Memphis just to compete—$30,000 for plane tickets and hotel alone,” Pedersen says. “We were talking dead serious.” (Pedersen, by the way, is the marketing director for Weber–Stephen Nordic, the northern European arm of the company known to most Americans simply as Weber. Despite his job and the fact that Weber–Stephen is a team sponsor—along with Converse, Haribo, and other companies—he stresses that the Danish National Barbecue Team operates independently of the grill–making company.)
He put out the call for a national tryout, to which 70 would–be competitors showed up. The first part of the trial involved, naturally, a barbecuing contest. Each contender was given two meats: pork spareribs and venison. The best cooks made it to the second round.
Next, Pedersen asked the Danish national soccer team’s psychologist, a friend of a friend, to interview and help select people with the right personalities—ambitious enough to want to compete and win, but without such big egos that they would find it impossible to work together as a team. “He thought it was a very funny project,” Pedersen says of the team psychologist. “So out of his ordinary work.”
The result was the eight–person team that has mostly remained intact to this day.
The second major hurdle was the difference in barbecue culture. Denmark doesn’t have one. At least, not by the definition of an American barbecuer. “In Denmark, it’s fast[–cooking] food, short time, sausages, and pork chops,” Pedersen explains. In other words, Danes grill, not barbecue. The team had to learn the low–and–slow technique from scratch. They downloaded the entirety of the TLC series BBQ Pitmasters and watched the episodes religiously.
Then there was nailing what flavors American barbecue judges would be looking for. “It’s difficult when you live in Europe and no one makes American barbecue,” Pedersen says. “There are barbecue restaurants in Denmark, but they are cruddy.”
Pedersen asked an American expat living in Norway to become the team’s coach and help them develop barbecue for the American palate. He helped the team buy American products and learn the proper flavor profiles—sweet, fatty, with a little afterburn.
“It’s quite funny,” Pedersen recalls. “The first time we were in Memphis, we cut away every kind of fat on the meat—we wanted it to be clean like in Europe. But everyone said, ‘Why are you cutting the best part away?’” The team learned its lesson, and the fat stayed from then on.
The final hurdle comes each time the team arrives in Tennessee, where they discover (and rediscover) that everything is different from what they had prepared for. In Denmark, practice sessions sometimes have to be conducted in five feet of snow. In Memphis this past May, it was hot and humid, which affected grill temperatures and timing. And key ingredients they’d used back home were scarcely to be found in Tennessee.
“Passion fruit juice—it took us four hours to find a single store that sold it,” Pedersen says. The team gave up entirely on acacia honey. With one ingredient—their favorite salt—they take no chances and bring it with them. And for those all–important drop–ins to their booth by other competitors, the team has a special dark Carlsberg lager shipped to the site from home.
With all the elements in place, things started with a bang in 2009, the first year they competed, when the team earned a third–place medal for exotic meats. (They made lamb, which is a much more commonplace meal in Denmark than it is in the U.S.)
In 2010, the team fell behind and didn’t win any top–place medals. But it had won its countrymen’s hearts. This May, a documentary crew from Danish TV trailed the team to Memphis. The Danish royal family, for whom the team has held private dinners, gave them a priceless gift: applewood from their own family fruit tree on the palace grounds.
And 2011 proved to be the year that it all clicked. “We’ve had a lot of issues over the years—a lot of it was not quite there,” Pedersen says. “Suddenly everything just made sense.”
Like the first–place tomato–based sauce, which would have been a non–contender if not for a happy accident. “It tasted like shit the night before we were supposed to turn it in, when a photographer from the documentary said to try adding apple puree,” Pedersen says. “We’d never bothered much with the tomato–based sauce because we never thought we had a chance to win. And when we added the apple puree, we thought it was a mistake until it suddenly tasted quite fantastic.”
The lamb relied less on serendipity than the fact that the teammates had planned ahead and were working with a meat they knew well. “We grilled the lamb shanks for 20 hours at about 85 to 90°C [185 to 203°F], and then the exterior of the lamb was barbecued in a crust of crushed pistachio and pecan nuts it had been rolled into,” Pedersen says. In other words, everything, for once, had gone according to plan.
But the sweetest victory of all? The Danish National Barbecue Team took home two medals. The Norwegian National Barbecue Team took home only one (first place, people’s choice). The Danish National Barbecue Team had beaten the Norwegians at the game the Norwegians had found first.
“There’s no one a Dane wants to lose to less than a Norwegian or a Swedish guy,” Pedersen says.
Michael Y. Park is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He studied medieval history as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and journalism as a graduate student at New York University. His stories have appeared in publications including The New York Times, the New York Post, and the Toronto Globe and Mail. He has feasted at a picnic with the king and queen of Malaysia, and dined on roadside kebabs while disguised as a Hazara tribesman in Afghanistan. He runs a monthly grilling competition in New York City and actually owns a kitchen torch.