Metro-East Living

Holy Smokers: It’s what barbecue tastes like in Heaven

Brian Combs mans the grill and Scott Stanifer, Brent Phelps and Jeremy Witt wrap ribs as they prepare for a party at the home of Aaron and Bonnie Gelly in rural Highland.
Brian Combs mans the grill and Scott Stanifer, Brent Phelps and Jeremy Witt wrap ribs as they prepare for a party at the home of Aaron and Bonnie Gelly in rural Highland. News-Democrat

It’s 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon and a hungry crowd of 350 is due at 5:30.

The Holy Smokers barbecue team was ready. The four friends, wearing royal blue logo T-shirts, had been up since 3 a.m. barbecuing 100 racks of ribs, 18 pork butts, 100 pieces of chicken, 100 pork steaks and 10 pounds of candied bacon for Gelly Fest, an annual party at the home of Aaron and Bonnie Gelly in rural Highland.

“We’re wrapping ribs,” said Brent Phelps, 36, working at a table beneath a white tent. They placed each seasoned, cooked slab on a sheet of aluminum foil, then gave it the treatment: honey, brown sugar and butter.

“People in St. Louis like sweet barbecue with heat on the back side,” he said. “The heat on the back side is in the rub we use on the front side. We cook three hours with Code Three on them. They get wrapped for two hours. What it’s doing is steaming that brown sugar and honey into the ribs. They come off, and we glaze them with sauce, homemade sauce.”

They will tell you the rub is Backdraft, by Code Three Spices out of Maryville. The sauce is a secret.

So is the recipe for Morgan Phelps’ baked beans.

“Just a lot of love,” said Brent’s wife, flashing a smile, “and a pound of applewood bacon, a variety of rib seasonings, nine kinds of beans, three kinds of Holy Smokers’ meat and nine pounds of seasoned ground beef. I use our Holy Smokers barbecue sauce in it, too.”

Except for the busy barbecuers, the place was quiet. You could almost hear the corn rustling nearby, just beyond the colorful bounce house, that had been set up. The built-in pool awaited jumpers and splashers. White roasters filled with beans, macaroni and cheese and other sides awaited hungry guests.

“After you are done,” said Brent, “it takes four weeks to like eating barbecue again because you have eaten so much of it.”

Cooking up a team

Holy Smokers started with Brent and Brian Combs, friends who attend Christ Church’s Collinsville-Maryville campus.

Brent is a farmer and energy manager for CHS Inc., a national farm cooperative. Brian, of Maryville, manages a branch office for Scott Trade.

Three years ago, we were cooking at church,” said Brent, who lives in Hamel. “He made great pulled pork. I thought I made better. At the church hayride, mine was gone before his.”

They took their show on the road, entered a competition and came in last.

“It was good food, but not contest food,” said Brent. “We made great food for hayrides and church picnics, but not anything close to what the big boys did on the circuit. ... Then, we just went crazy. We were bound and determined we weren’t going to get dead last. The next time we did really, really really well.”

Soon, they drafted a couple more guys: Jeremy Witt, a history and geography teacher at Belleville West who lives in Millstadt, and Scott Stanifer, of Glen Carbon, church worship coordinator.

“Everybody has something — bowling, hunting, country club. These guys have the Holy Smokers.”

Their slogan? It’s what barbecue tastes like in heaven.

“Everything we win, we put in the offering plate,” said Brent.

Everything they need to win comes out of their pockets.

“It costs a lot of money to compete,” said Brent, who estimates the team takes part in six St. Louis Barbecue Society-sanctioned contests a year, including St. Jacob’s Jakey in June and Wildwood’s Barbecue Bash on Sept. 24 to 26.

“We have got a lot of equipment,” he said. That includes a “Holy Smokers” silver trailer to transport their smokers, cookers and coolers.

Holy Smokers starts with good quality meat.

“You can tell great pulled pork if you don’t have to sauce it,” said Brent. “Guys who can’t cook put barbecue sauce on it. Quality meat stands alone.”

Their pork comes from Kirby Knackstedt’s Grant Fork Meats.

“Our briskets we get from Snake River Farms in Oregon,” said Brent. “A Wagyu Kobe beef brisket is $220. It’s the finest in the world. They next-day air them out of Oregon to us.”

On barbecue competition days, you’ll likely see other Phelps family members around, including their two children, Scott, 7, a second-grader at Hamel Elementary, and Taylor, “a good eater” at 20 months. Brent was thrilled when Scott won Jakey in June’s kid competition for best presentation. “He uses little kid knives and whittles away at peppers. He makes shapes to put in his box.”

Dad Lendell does the leg work such as getting ice and setting up tents and speakers. Back home, he also handles farm chores for his son. Recently, he went along to Memphis where he, Brent and Brian took a class with World Champion barbecue king Malcom Reed.

Holy Smokers bills Karen Phelps, Brent’s mom, as their secret ingredient. They rely on her for desserts and the chef’s choice category in competitions. She and her sister, Kim Morris, of Collinsville, make sure everything looks inviting.

“People eat with their eyes, taste with their eyes,” said Brent. “If it doesn’t look good, it ain’t worth eating.”

Let’s have a party

The Gellys and the Phelpses are good friends.

“Everything they do turns to gold, and I am just happy to be in their aura,” said Bonnie Gelly, an obstetrician/gynecologist. “My husband and I wanted to have a party to honor all the employees. He has two businesses. I have one.”

His businesses are Gelly Excavating and Construction Inc. and Gelly Farms. Hers is Southern Obstetric and Gynecological Associates.

The Gellys’ party got its start in fall 2011 to thank friends and neighbors who helped them clean up after the Good Friday tornado.

“It was the same tornado that hit the airport,” said Bonnie. “We lost a shed and the roof off the garage. It was during planting season. We lost a lot of farm equipment, too. There were 30 to 40 people out here Holy Saturday to clean up. We had a party in the fall to thank them.”

The Gellys have three children, Brenden, 10, Blake 7, and Boston, 4. Besides employees, the Gelly kids’ ball teams and their classes at school are invited.

“It’s evolved now to everybody who wants to stop in,” she said.

Perfect pies

Karen Phelps fussed over her homemade pies — strawberry pie, a cherry, a peach and a caramel apple, Brent’s favorite — inside the Gellys’ kitchen.

“I have all the family birthday get-togethers,” said Karen, who lives in Maryville. “If they don’t have this (caramel apple), they aren’t happy. I could probably make this in my sleep. It’s got nuts in the bottom of the crust and I use Granny Smith apples.”

“Like barbecue, you get the sweet and the tart,” said Brent. “You taste competing flavors. It reminds you of eating a caramel apple ... For the barbecue contests, we have to make desserts. She’s the best there is.”

Karen’s tips: Egg wash for a shiny crust, ceramic baking dishes and “try to make a pie that appeals to the masses.”

Karen’s strawberry pie won won Jakey in June’s dessert category last year. It received 499 out of 500 points.

Presentation plays a big part in cooking contests.

“The strawberry pie looks good,” she said. “It’s brighr red. I decorated the tray with a Fourth of July theme. It looked fun and bright and cheery. I usually make stars out of pastry. I forgot them today.”

Karen remembered the sparklers, and she had her own presentation thing going. She wore a barbecue pit print dress.

She’s already considering what to make for the next contest.

“(For inspiration), he texts me pictures of desserts,” she said. “What son does this?”

“It’s a real cool thing we can do together,” Brent said.

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