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Barbecue Competitions Are For The Real Iron Chefs

"I like to think of what I do as high ceremonial cooking." Rockin' Ronnie Shewchuk

Memphis In May Winners

What's the hottest and fastest growing sport in the nation?

It may well be barbecue. There are now more than 500 barbecue cookoffs in the US, including a TV "Barbecue Championship Series" with a $75,000 winner's silk purse. The series aired in fall 2006 on Sunday nights right after bull riding on the VERSUS sports network. "The meats have been marinated; the cookers fired and stoked," barked the teaser, "Watch as the best pit men in the country line up ready to do battle, apron to apron." Cooking on steel smokers the size of sofas, these are the real iron chefs.

The champ was the maintenance manager for a trucking company, Mike Davis of Marietta, OK. He and his wife Debbie, a.k.a. Lotta Bull BBQ, set a record for winnings in 2006 when they won 11 Grand Championships on the barbecue circuit, including the biggest of them all, the The American Royal Open in Kansas City. Some observers speculate they may have grossed close to $200,000 that year. Even after deducting about $50,000 expenses, that's more than most restaurant chefs make a year. Heck, that's more than a lot of restaurant owners make in a year.

At the Jack Daniel's Barbecue Championships

Prize money is not the only reward competitors reap. Plenty have turned their trophies into publicity and big time cha-ching. More than a few have turned their trophies into venture capital and opened restaurants. Scores have used their accolades to win shelf space for their sauces and spice rubs in grocery stores. Many have launched catering services using the elaborate rigs they bought for competition cooking, while others have become so enamored of the gypsy lifestyle that they've hit the road selling ribs, rubs, sauces, and marinades at state and county fairs.

Smoke gets in your eyes, and blood

Kansas City Barbecue Society

Most say that once you've competed, you get addicted. Then you buy a Winnebago and a huge techno-pit on wheels custom made for you by a welder in Texas for only $15,000. You pack your gear Wednesday night (don't forget the first aid kit and the insect repellent), and at first light Thursday you and your spouse pick up a buddy who will watch the fire on the late shift, and you drive all day.

Thursday night you check into the competition site, usually a park or campground, find your berth by the creek, turn on the boom box, crack open a few bottles, and stay up all night laughing and swapping lies and recipes with your chums from across the nation. Everyone has a colorful sobriquet. There's Jellybean, Millhopper, Crutch, and of course, Belly. Sometimes the hosts have a party for the teams, like the one that the folks at Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue ("The Jack") cook up on a mountaintop overlooking Lynchburg, TN, complete with bluegrass bands and unlimited Tennessee sippin' whiskey, most of which is not sipped. Some sauced cooks crash in their campers, others on cots, and a few treat themselves to a local hotel.

Breakfast at the South Carolina Q Cup barbecue

Friday you sleep in, and when your crew is de-slimed, you fry up some bacon and eggs, brew lots of strong coffee, set up your tent and prep tables, fire up the pits, and begin the rubbing, marinating, injecting, and test cooking. The air is filled with the sweet perfume of hardwood smoke, roasting meat, and burning sugar as teams prepare food for themselves and friends. Music thumps from every tent, dogs yip at passersby, kids play tag among the campers, reporters from local TV stations do their stand-ups in front of your tent, your assistant cuts himself with a chef's knife, and you can't remember where you packed the first aid kit. The scene is a riot of color with pig-shaped pink school buses, whirlygigs, flags, brightly colored tents, Hawaiian shirts, and every kind of cartoon pig and cow mascot imaginable. Around sunset there is usually a meeting for all cooks with the organizers, then you put a whole hog on the smoker and start getting ready for another party.

Memphis in May Barbecue Republic booth

At Memphis in May most booths are decorated in sync with the annual theme, and the teams host a fte for friends, media, and sponsors. Some booths are marvels of scaffold architecture, with multiple levels, dance floors, and disco lights. Everything imaginable goes on the grill, from venison to cobblers.

In the wee hours, after the party people have staggered off, you slip the pork shoulders and beef briskets under the squeaky steel door of the smoker and try to grab some shuteye.

Saturday morning, everyone is up early for breakfast, and in go the ribs. Things are blurry from the pace and last night's beverages as turn-in time approaches. The ribs are arranged artfully in the official Styrofoam clamshell for the 1 p.m. presentation to the judges. There is typically a 10 minute window, so you don't dare be late lest you be disqualified. Then go the other dishes in rapid succession: pulled pork, chicken, brisket, and whatever else the organizers have dared you to cook. Today it's desserts, and you can't remember what soft ball temperature is. Whatever.

Ardie Davis judges barbecue

The judges gather in a big tent where Ardie "Remus Powers" Davis, Ph. B., replete with black bowler, bow tie, wing-collar tuxedo shirt, and starched white apron, orders them to raise their right hands and "solemnly swear to objectively and subjectively evaluate each barbecue meat... so that truth, justice, excellence in barbecue, and the American Way of Life, may be strengthened and preserved forever" (the complete oath is in the sidebar at right). They settle into their folding chairs and begin the dirty job of tasting from the boxes identified only by code numbers. The napkin pile goes down fast. Without conferring among themselves, the scores are turned over to the computer crew. You watch the tent nervously, fantasizing that someone will come rushing out screaming your code number and accolades.

By 6 p.m. you're in the judges' tent, hoarse from cheering at the raucous award ceremony. You've collected your trophy and check (or more likely, not), and you party all night again. Or maybe you sulk. Sunday morning, you load up your gear, and hit the road. With luck, you crawl into your own bed at home in the wee hours of Monday morning.

Memphis in May Barbecue competition

Some teams, like Lotta Bull, will repeat this ritual 40 times a year. You've gotta have an understanding boss. By the time "The Jack" unofficially wraps the season in late October in Lynchburg, you've covered thousands of miles and spent tens of thousands of dollars. As gas prices climb your enthusiasm for next season is challenged. Alas, only a few teams offset their costs with prize money.

So what attracts them? The majority of the team leaders are white male ex-jocks whose competitive flame continues to burn, even though they can't see their belts. Then there are the lures of fire, the big metal toys, great meat, the seductive scent of hardwood smoke, fellowship, and dreams of fame and fortune.

Mike Davis does it "for the thrill of it." He says, "I thrive on this stuff. It's in my blood. My wife and I can do it together. We never get tired of it. The people we meet are just fantastic. Even when you don't win, you can be happy for your buddies. Of course I'm happier when we win."

According to "Rockin' Ronnie" Shewchuk, author of the book Barbecue Secrets, "Barbecue at its best is a spiritual experience, and I like to think of what I do as high ceremonial cooking. You're not really serious about barbecue until you've slept next to your smoker and used a bag of charcoal as a pillow."

Pros on the circuit

Here are three of the more prominent cooks on the circuit.

Mike Mills Barbecues pork chops

Mike "The Legend" Mills. One of the most highly respected cooks in the game is gravel-throated Mike "The Legend" Mills. He started out as the owner of a modest barbecue joint in tiny downstate Murphysboro, IL, got together a team, won a few small events, and then blew the barbecue world away with three grand world championships at Memphis in May, known affectionately as "The Super Bowl of Swine". No one had ever done that. Now he has a warehouse full of trophies, a line of sauces and rubs, and a James Beard Award-nominated memoir/cookbook named Peace, Love and Barbecue written with his daughter, Amy Mills Tunnicliffe. Meanwhile he has significantly expanded his neighborhood ribjoint, 17th Street Bar & Grill, added two more locations in Southern Illinois, and built three Memphis Championship Barbecue locations in Las Vegas. He is also a partner in the Manhattan hotspot, Blue Smoke. And we're not talking Manhattan, Kansas. Las Vegas and Manhattan are a long way from home for this country boy from Murphysboro.

Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson Barbecue

Chris Lilly. Chris Lilly is probably the most visible competitor on the circuit. He is married to the daughter of the owner of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Que in upstate Decatur, AL, a popular local hangout since 1925. The place has achieved national notoriety because of the acclaim slathered on Lilly and his competition team. Their red sauce was named "Best on the Planet" at the American Royal Open in Kansas City, and their signature white barbecue sauce has also won numerous awards. Lilly has won top awards at practically every major competition with his cooking, too. The sauces sell briskly in groceries and on the website, and now there is a second location in Decatur. Their first franchise opened in 2007 in Monroe, NC. Lilly can be seen doing TV commercials for Kingsford charcoal, and he has been featured on the Today Show, USA Today, in the Wall Street Journal, Martha Stewart Living and numerous other publications. You can even sit at the foot of the master and learn how to make championship barbecue by watching his DVD series. He says he loves competitions because of the community, because it is good for business, but also because it makes a good place to do R&D. "As a result of our experiments in competitions, we now serve brisket and turkey with recipes we developed on the circuit."

Bill and Barb Milroy with barbecue ribs

Bill and Barbara Milroy. The Texas Rib Rangers, a.k.a. Bill and Barbara Milroy claim to have carted home more than 500 trophies in their 31 years of competition. They turned their passion for barbecue into a nomadic lifestyle and a business. "I love traveling and seeing the world" says Bill, and cookoffs are "like a family reunion every week. There's a bonding with people from all walks of life. Each weekend you meet your brothers and sisters and find new ones." They have several revenue streams, among them prize money, vending to the public at those cookoffs that allow it, catering, consulting with restaurants, cooking classes, catering classes, and selling their rubs and sauces. Their sauces, which they claim have won more than 50 championships, including a perfect score at the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational, sell briskly wherever they go and on their website. They have achieved the holy grail of barbecue cooks: National distribution of their bottled goods. They also custom blend and private label for restaurants, among them the 85 locations of the Sagebrush Steakhouse. They are also sponsored by Ole Hickory Pits, for whom they are "Ambassadors."

Selected competitions

KCBS Barbecue Judging Plate

Below are some of the most prestigious competitions. The Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) is the largest sanctioning body and its website lists the rules and judging criteria as well as all the events they sanction.

The American Royal Open is the flagship event for the the KCBS on the first weekend of October. There's music, clowns, and plenty to eat. More than 500 teams made the pilgrimage to this capital of barbecue in 2006, its 27th year. The sprawling event filled almost 17 acres and awarded more than $110,000 in prizes.

Memphis in May barbecue contest

Memphis in May. "The Largest Pork Barbecue Cooking Contest on the Planet" is held on the banks of the Mississippi in the other major capital of barbecue. By invitation only, more than 250 teams compete for some serious cash prizes by cooking only pork. As in all legit competitions, judges taste blind. But at MIM, some judges visit the team sites, inspect the rigs, and taste at elegant tables with uniformed team members waiting on them. As the trained experts gnaw on bones, the team captain regales them with hogwash about how they use a secret recipe given to them by grandpa, and how they stayed up all night massaging the meat before it went on the cooker.

barbecue judgeCompetitors go all out to create environments with restaurant-like themes that run the gamut from elegant to whimsical and weave elaborate lies for the skeptical tasters. Teams dress silly and act sillier. Located in a park, the 3-day hogfest is visited by more than 90,000 porkaholics. At night the teams invite friends and family and the party goes on until the wee hours. There's about $65,000 in prize money (plus sponsor bonuses to winners using their products), and the Grand Champion can walk off with a check for more than $20,000.

The Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue ("The Jack") is the most prestigious international event. It is KCBS supervised and held in October in Lynchburg, TN at the world-famous Jack Daniel's distillery. Only teams that have won state or national competitions are invited to compete. Because the field is small, top notch, and the whiskey is smooth, this is the one all the cooks want to get to.

Getting started

There are two or three cookoffs every weekend in the summer. If this kind of sport sounds like something you need to do, there are about two dozen barbecue societies in the nation, and you should join a few. Many hold meetings, demos, and seminars. Some even sponsor and sanction competitions, providing a set of rules, judging procedures, certified judges, publicity, and cumulative point totals towards annual titles. If you're not ready to go whole hog, many contests have "back porch" divisions for beginners. Small entry fees, small trophies, big fun. Here's a list of every barbecue association I can find, with some descriptive info on the largest and most important.

  • Arizona Barbeque. A lively active group whose site has a calendar of activities and a forum.
  • California BBQ Association. There's a lively online interactive forum on their website, and unlike many association websites, they actually keep their calendar of events up to date!
  • Canadian Barbecue Association. There is a lively barbecue community in Canada. These folks are fired up and they even compete in winter!
  • Caribbean BBQ Association. Some experts argue that barbecue originated in the Caribbean, and the spiritual descendants of the inventors live in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Antilles.
  • Central Texas Barbecue Association. Brisket is king in the region with the most famous brisket restaurants in the world, but in the two dozen events they judge, they also taste ribs and chicken. Many of their events also judge chile and beans. One even has a margarita category!
  • Florida Barbecue Association. They call themselves "crackers" and they are passionate about que. They sanction quite a few events, classes, and judge certification courses around the state. The website even has a guide to BBQ joints in Florida.
  • German Barbecue Association. Grillmeisterschaft auf Deutsche.
  • Hearth, Patio, & Barbecue Association (HPBA). The trade association for grill manufacturers, distributors, reps, and retailers. The annual conference is a great place to see the new toys coming on the market.
  • Illinois BBQ Alliance. An active group sponsoring activities mostly in the Chicago area.
  • International Barbeque Cookers Association. The IBCA sanctions more than 130 competitions in nine states, but most of them are in Texas. One of their largest events, Traders Village in Grand Prairie, TX, attracts more than 100 teams. They judge beef brisket, chicken halves, pork spareribs, and pinto beans.
  • Chef at Memphis in May Iowa Barbeque Society. The largest pork producing state knows barbecue, and participates in numerous contests. Sadly, the website is out of date and offers little.
  • Kansas City Barbeque Society. The largest and most important barbecue society in the world, KCBS sanctioned 223 competitions in 41 states in 2006, up 28% from 2005. All KCBS-sanctioned competitions have categories for pork shoulder, pork ribs, chicken, and beef brisket, and many feature local specialties or fun "anything but" categories such as fish or desserts. The Kansas City BullSheet, their monthly tabloid newspaper, is filled with news of events past and future, debates on competition rules, reviews or products, cooking tips, recipes, commentary, and useful ads. Their flagship event is the largest barbecue competition in the world, The American Royal Open in Kansas City. Membership is $35 per year and includes a subscription to the BullSheet. If you're serious about barbecue, get on this bus.
  • Lone Star Barbecue Society. Brisket is king, but they also judge spareribs and chicken. One event has a goat category, and another judges wild hog!
  • Memphis Barbecue Association. Their flagship event, Memphis in May, is billed as "World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest". Add this to your list of things to see before you die.
  • Cooking Whole Hog barbecue in the South Carolina Q Cup Memphis Barbecue Network. Founded in 2007, this is a group of people who are active in barbecue competitions that were once under the wing of the Memphis Barbecue Association (MBA). But in 2007 MBA decided to focus on Memphis in May, its flagship, and stop sanctioning other events. That left a number of events without an oversight sanctioning body, so they banded together to form MBN. Got it?
  • Mid Atlantic BBQ Association. Small but growing.
  • National Barbecue Association. This is a trade association catering to the needs of restaurants and caterers. Their annual convention includes a major sauce competition, a session called "Consulting with the BBQ Masters", and a bus tour of local barbecue restaurants. Individual memberships are $50 per year, business memberships are $150, and a subscription to the monthly National Barbecue News is included.
  • New England BBQ Society. They have a lively email list with interesting debate and a recipe exchange.
  • North Carolina Barbecue Society. A great website with an innovative barbecue trail featuring famous barbecue joints aimed at tourists.
  • whole hog in the South Crolina Q Cup Pacific Northwest BBQ Association. With more than 400 members, they organize events from Whistler, British Columbia in the north, to Oregon in the south, Calgary, Alberta in the east, and of course the Walla Walla, Washington Onion Cookoff in the middle. There are numerous courses for cooks, and naturally there are salmon competitions.
  • South Carolina Barbeque Association. This fast growing organization sanctioned about 20 competitions, all in the state. Founder, Lake High, is one of the most knowledgeable and colorful characters in the barbecue universe.
  • Swiss Barbecue Association. The home page promises "Fire, Food and Fun" in English, and the rest is in German. The teams I have met practice what they preach.
  • Texas Gulf Coast BBQ Cooker's Association. A newly formed group that already is involved in a number of events in the Houston area.
  • Utah Barbecue Society. One of the most active groups in the nation involved in cookoffs, classes, and a lively online forum.
  • Wisconsin Barbeque Society. A small passionate group, and they are the go-to guys if you want to learn how to smoke gouda.
  • World Barbecue Association. The website lists competitions from New Zealand to Moscow-Krasnogorsk!

For more of my photos from the world of barbecue, click here.

...more to come (to be notified when new recipes and other articles are published, be sure to subscribe to our free, spam free, email newsletter "Smoke Signals").

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