From left: Hannah McLaughlin, Keira Stock, Aidan Stock and Ella McLaughlin presenting their winning appetizer. (Photo courtesy Kathleen Stock)

The highlight of our Outer Banks vacation with Kristen’s extended family is marked by appetizer night. It started out as a casual break from more formal dinners but, naturally, we’ve managed to twist relaxation into a competition. Maybe next year we’ll try our hand at extreme hammocking, but for now the App-Off is the sport of choice.

I usually don’t enter the melee because, honestly, it’s a tremendous spectator event. I like to hide the colander and every spatula except the plastic one that was partially melted on the grill. Then I just fix myself a drink, kick back and watch the kitchen commotion. But I had to run to Wee Winks Market for ice anyway, so I took a gander at their offerings. They had everything I needed for my slider burgers plus a few new wrinkles to make them more “beachy.” I could use King’s Hawaiian buns, pickle chips and just a dollop of barbecue sauce.

And when the word ‘dollop’ popped into my head, I got a little cocky like maybe I’ll just go ahead and win this thing. I knew where the good spatula was hidden and Margo and Emma jumped on board as my sous chefs so the judges were sure to be wowed. The panel was anchored by Uncle Bob, whose experience in having food prepared for him is unparalleled. Tier two consisted of Kara and Dave. Both command a working knowledge of what “medium rare” should look like so they are a little intimidating. Junior judges Elliott and Aidan rounded out the esteemed jury.

We were called early in the competition (Team name: McDaddy’s) and I observed pure pleasure in the judges as they sampled the sliders. Uncle Bob offered that it was delicious but perhaps could have used a touch more cumin. My confidence was soaring though because I remembered from last year that Bob says that about every entry. But Dave had a follow up question: “Is that barbecue sauce I taste?”

“Yes!” I beamed, thinking, I know – so clever, right? A dollop!

“Did you make the sauce yourself?”

Huh? Who does that? Why would anyone do that when they already have it perfectly packaged at Wee Winks?

“No, I did not.”

I slunk to the far edge of the room and seethed as a parade of gourmet treats was offered to the judges. Cousin Kevin Ciotta and his partner Tracy dished up an asparagus plate that would cost about $97 at Bacchanalia. Young cousin Kevin Murphy, a college kid, made a bacon wrapped something or other in a balsamic reduction sauce. Are you kidding me? I must have gone to the wrong college. Obviously these show-offs had been preparing for this all year.

The kids from the McLaughlin house teamed up on a scrumptious chocolate-berry-crepe concoction. Now, had they simply used a jar of Nutella for their chocolate source I’m certain such a pedestrian culinary maneuver would not have escaped the discerning taste buds of our judges. No, there must be a cocoa plantation somewhere in Kitty Hawk. And cousin Dennis’ dish featuring a Tzatziki sauce was excellent, but let’s be straightforward here, I’m willing to bet that no one could even spell Tzatziki without looking at the very bottle they bought at the store. In fact, I may propose next year we have a spelling bee instead because I happen to be a VERY GOOD SPELLER!

Well, I’ll tell you what Judge Dave, I’m not bitter – I’m inspired. I’m planting a tomato vine. I’m tapping maple trees in Vermont for the sweetest syrup and I’m going to the Iowa State Fair. When I find the most acclaimed, most prize-winning pig, I will capture its aura in a jar, and that my friend, will be the final ingredient to my homemade barbecue sauce that will blow your visor clear off your judgmental mind. That and maybe a little more cumin.

Tim Sullivan grew up in a large family in the Northeast and now lives with his small family in Oakhurst. He can be reached at