No doubt macho cavemen began challenging each other to cookoffs soon after the first bonfire, but today, barbecue cookoffs may be the nation’s fastest growing sport. With scores of new ones popping up every year, the current count is probably close to 1,000.
The first barbecue cooking competition was the Kaiser Foil Cookoff conducted in 1959 in Hawaii, just a few months after Hawaii became a state. “For Men Only” contestants sent in their main dish recipes, 25 finalists were chosen and flown with their wives (assuming they were all married) to the Hawaiian Village Hotel on Waikiki for the cookoff.
First prize was the title “Grand National Cookout Champion” and $10,000 cash. 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th prizes were a Jeep Station Wagon! The entry form had “Bar-B-Tricks” that emphasized wrapping things in foil before putting on the barbecue. I found this recipe in the May 29, 1960 Los Angeles Times:
Pork Tenderloin Javanese
2 pounds pork tenderloin
6 Brazil nuts, grated
1 cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil
Hot saffron rice, or lightly curried rice with currants
Trim excess fat from meat. Cut meat into 1-inch cubes. Combine nuts, onion, garlic, lemon juice, soy sauce, sugar, seasonings and oil. Add pork cubes; marinate for 10 minutes. Place pork on metal skewers; reserve marinade. Grill over hot coals, or broil for about 10 minutes on each side, brushing once on each side with the reserve marinade. Serve pork on skewers along with hot rice.
The Kaiser event took place again in 1960, and I am not sure when it stopped.
The template for modern barbecue competitions comes from chili cookoffs, the first of which, like so many other food firsts, was held at the State Fair of Texas in 1952 in Dallas. The World Championship Cow Country BBQ Cookout, held June 3, 1972 in Uvalde, TX at an event called Arama Days was probably patterned after the many chili cookoffs around the state.
According to John Raven of Johnson City, TX, the winner was Kermit Hahne as head cook for the Brazos Barristers cooking team of San Antonio. Hahne lived in Stonewall and, according to Raven, often did catering for President Lyndon Johnson. In the photo above we see “Big John” Hamilton, an actor who appeared in numerous John Wayne movies, David Low, one of the competitors, and Slim Pickens, a popular actor in numerous Westerns as well as Blazing Saddles. His most famous role was probably in Dr. Strangelove in which he famously played Maj. “King” Kong, a B-52 pilot who rode a nuclear bomb to its target in Russia waving his cowboy hat. Special thanks to Raven who located the photo above in the Uvalde Union Leader.
The next year, in 1973, there was another competition in Covington, TN, and the first Brady World Championship BBQ Goat Cook-off. Over the next decade there were several others, but the first really big competition was in Chicago. In 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko bragged that he made the best ribs anywhere and set in motion the annual Mike Royko Ribfest in Grant Park on the Lake Michigan lakefront. There were more than 400 contestants the first year. The winner was Charlie Robinson who parlayed his instant fame into a restaurant and a line of sauces and spices.
The event became an overnight sensation, and even a source of minor controversy. Almost from the outset vegetarians began pestering Royko for permission to enter non-meat ribs. The crotchety columnist wrote that he had nothing personal against vegetarians, “In fact, I occasionally eat vegetables – a tiny onion in a martini or a stalk of celery in a Bloody Mary. Keeps me fit.”
In 1986 he gave in and several vegetarians showed up that year. He tasted their faux ribs and wrote, “The texture was very much like a soft, chewable piece of rubber.” He thought there were great possibilities for “gluten-on-a-stick barbecued ribs. There are many people who compulsively nibble on pencil erasers.”
When the Sun-Times was purchased by Rupert Murdoch in 1984, an outraged Royko moved across the street to the arch-rival Chicago Tribune where he was syndicated in more than 600 newspapers.
The competition was limited to 500 contestants by the space available in Grant Park, and many applicants were turned away each year. Managing the event became a hassle, so in 1987 he wiggled out of the job. He explained why in a column. It seems he plotted to win the cookoff by raising his own hog, Prince, but one fateful night while walking him around the block, he was attacked by muggers. “With a roaring oink of rage, Prince was upon them, tusks flashing, hoofs flailing. One of them shrieked, ‘killer pig!’ and they fled in terror to a lifetime of porcine nightmares.”
He asked “How can I turn this loyal, trusting, valiant creature into a few slabs of barbecued ribs?” So he passed the tongs to others at the Tribune. Ribfest continued another three years, until 1990, when the Trib wiggled out of it, too.
Royko continued to bedevil crooked politicians in his columns, defended the citizens of Chicago, and enjoyed ribs and cheap wine he bought at a liquor store at which I was the wine buyer until he died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1997.
The event that propelled barbecue competition into the big time occurred one fall evening in 1985 in Kansas City, MO, when Carolyn and Gary Wells and their friend Rick Welch had an adult beverage inspired brainstorm. They formed a club for barbecue lovers, called it the Kansas City Barbecue Society, launched the club’s newsletter and called it the Bullsheet, and held a few informal cookoffs for themselves and their friends. Today there are more than 500 KCBS sanctioned competitions across the continent where backyard braggers could see just how good their game is. Prize money has skyrocketed and at least 20 cooks are earning near or above six figures by hitting these weekend festivals/parties/events/contests.
Meanwhile the Food Network has featured barbecue competitions and John Markus produced a made-for-TV shootout called BBQ Pitmasters on TLC that has stirred interest even more. The 2010 version of Pitmasters posted a $100,000 first prize.
Click here to read more about barbecue competitions, how they operate, and for links to the many barbecue societies and associations that sponsor them. Click here to go behind the smoker with Candy Weaver, a real iron chef and top competitor, and watch her in action.