Joe McManus Competition BBQ for Newbies

I want to take a moment to redirect things a little.  Take a little time to remember the things that are important and how BBQ fits into that mix.  I’ve got no cooking advice or judging explanations to go through, just some thoughts about friends…and family and how something like BBQ nurtures those things closest to us. 


My family has recently been dealt a couple of blows, my wife losing her grandma and less than a week later I lost my uncle.  These two people leave an unbelievable legacy.  Grandma departed smiling down at 90 descendants, and that doesn’t include all the in-laws, such as me, who were touched by her.  My uncle was a basketball and baseball coach in Minnesota and he managed to touch so many lives not only though his distinguished coaching and teaching career, but also as a community and church servant.  But I simply knew him as Uncle George. 


Where’s the BBQ connection?  That’s the interesting thing, there really is not one.  Neither of these two huge families had a history of having a “barbeque:” a roasting of a pig, or sharing some other savory meat we BBQers adore.  There was the occasional burger and hot dog event, which by some definitions might be “a barbeque”.  Even without BBQ, as is the case in many family gatherings, food always has and probably always will play a key role in the get-togethers.  From polish sausage and potica (pah-titz-a) on the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota to fried chicken or chicken and noodles in central Illinois, food was there to bond these families.  After each of these funerals, what was the healing medicine administered… a luncheon… food. 


So the next time you’re toiling on a Saturday morning over proper arrangement of chicken thighs or parsley, pause just a moment (which honestly, at a competition is all you have), and remember that the real essence of BBQ is not in the perfect rib, or 180 brisket, or in the Grand Champion trophy.  No, the real essence of BBQ is sharing:  sharing food, sharing drink, and sharing conversation and camaraderie with your friends…and family.  That is the award each and every one of us takes away from this pastime…the ability to share our craft, our talents, our passion, with all those close to us.        


As I sat waiting to go to the funeral of my uncle, my wife spoke to me about plans for the weekend.  “Maybe you should cook up some pork?  It’d be nice to share with…”  I replied, “Yes, yes we should, I’d like that.”  Somehow the thought of helping a friend through some troubling times comforted me tremendously.  And the thought of being able to do it while playing in the smoke was the therapy I craved. 


In loving memory of:

Grandma Florence Styck


Uncle George Marsnik  


Joey Mac  

Last article introduced the topic of judging. This is the final installment about judging. I’d like to thank those who helped me out pulling this one together.

Q. Suppose a judge likes an entry and gives it the highest score only to find the next entry is even better. Can the judge change the first entry’s score?
A. NO, NO, NO. The only allowable score change is one which is directed by the Representative. The judges are responsible for giving careful thought to the scores they hand out. Since there are 30 minutes between each turn-in, judges have plenty of time to carefully evaluate each of the entries that he/she samples. This would be an example of comparing entries, something that is not part of the KCBS judging process. Judges are instructed to evaluate each entry on its own individual qualities. Once an entry has been scored, the judge should try to forget that entry and move on to the next.

Q. How can a judge avoid comparing entries?
A. The easiest way is to simply cover the top of the score card with a napkin. “Out of sight, out of mind,” applies when it comes to judging. With the previous scores covered, the judge will not be tempted to look at the scores already given to other entries and see how those compare against the current entry. This may sound odd but once the cards are turned in, most of the entries blur into indistinct memories in the judges’ minds. Only the great or truly bad entries stand out and the memories of them quickly fade. One of the table captains’ tasks is to keep an eye on the judges as they complete their score cards. If a captain spots a judge filling out the card incorrectly or referring back to previous scores, the captain will give the judge a gentle reminder to not compare scores.

Q. What is done to prevent a dishonest team and a few corrupt judges from being able to identify that team’s entries and increasing its chances of placing well?
A. Keeping the identities of the teams’ entries secret is of primary importance and the KCBS employs two primary means of protecting that secrecy and the integrity of the results.

First, the KCBS uses a “double blind” system for protecting the identities of the teams from the judges. As discussed in the introduction, each container a team receives is marked with a number unique to that team. How a team was assigned their particular number is determined by the contest reps. The number might simply be based alphabetically by team name or the captain’s last name. It could also be selected by site number, the team’s registration date, the captain’s ZIP Code, or by any number of other criteria. Reps have their own methods of assigning team numbers and many alternate them between contests. As the boxes are turned in for judging, labels with new numbers are placed over the number on the boxes. The correlation between the original number and the new or ‘blind’ number is known only to the contest reps. Most reps change their blind numbers between contests. With this safeguard in place, even if a judge knew a team he was pulling for was team #11, for example, no box with the # 11 on it will be shown to the judges. Instead, after the blind number is applied, that team’s boxes might be presented to the judges as #71, #132, #151, #226, or some other seemingly random number, depending on the blind number being used at that contest. The teams have no way of knowing the reps’ blind numbers until after the contest. The judges should also not know the various teams’ numbers. Without knowing both of these vital pieces of information, trying to identify a particular team’s entries with any degree of accuracy is essentially guesswork.

Second, another step is taken to further reduce the possibility of an “agreement” between a cook and a judge affecting the outcome of a contest. In this step, a table of judges will receive an entry from any particular team no more than once over the four main meat categories. After the boxes have been turned in, they are renumbered with the blind number and are staged on a large tray or bread flat for the captains. The first table captain in line compares the box numbers on that tray against the log of boxes already judged by his or her table in previous categories. If that table has already judged one or more of the numbers in any of the previous categories, the captain will remove those boxes from the tray and exchange them for numbers that table has not yet seen.

As a final word on the subject, while the possibility of cheating the system must be recognized, the likelihood of any team or judges attempting to influence a contest’s outcome by cheating is extremely remote. The competition barbecue community is extremely close-knit and no responsible competitors and judges would be willing to sacrifice their standing within that community by circumventing the rules for a relatively small and briefly enjoyed gain.

Q. After the score cards have been turned in and reviewed, can a table captain or a contest rep tell a judge to change any of the scores because they were not in line with the rest of the judges at the table?
A. No. Neither the captains nor the reps have the authority to tell judges what their scores should have been after the fact. The captain and the reps will not have tasted any of the entries in question and, in all likelihood, the reps would not have seen the entries.
If a judge’s scores are significantly different (usually much lower) from the others on a couple of entries in a category, a rep will ask the judge why the scores in question were given. By doing this, the rep is not implying or suggesting the judge should be giving higher scores. The rep is simply looking for an explanation of why the judge felt that score was appropriate for that particular entry. In the vast majority of cases, the reason was justified (for example, that particular sample was fatty, burnt, had an off-flavor, etc.) and no additional consultations will be required. However, if a judge’s score is consistently well above or below that of the rest of the table, the rep can take the judge aside and first ask whether they completely understand the scoring system and offer a quick explanation of the system. Many times, this mini-consultation will bring the wayward judge’s next scores back into line with the remainder of the table. These conversations are always performed in private since the object is not to single out and embarrass a judge in front of their peers.

Q. Are certified judges required to compete from time to time to keep their certification status active?
A. Although many judges could benefit from the experience of competing, the KCBS has no requirement mandating a judge to compete at all, except in the case of judges seeking to achieve a Master Judge badge. While the intent of such a proposal to create more well-rounded and experienced judges is desirable, implementing such a requirement for all certified judges would decimate the pool of available judges. Judging is a voluntary position and many judges rationalize spending a few hours of travel and a tank of gas in order to serve as a judge a number of times throughout the season. However, if judges were required to compete in order to keep their certifications active, only a very small fraction would be in a position to justify the expense of acquiring the equipment to compete. Assuming a judge has none of the competition equipment, he or she would have to spend around $1,000 for low-priced (and unreliable) smokers, canopies, coolers, work tables, and the various other equipment needed to compete at the most basic level. While having more judges with first-hand competition experience is a desirable goal, it should be easy to conclude that any requirement stipulating judges must bear such a level of expense simply to continue to volunteer their time and travel expenses in the future would have a disastrous effect on the number of available certified judges.

Q. Barbecue cooks tend to be hardware junkies. Why can’t some teams donate their old, unused equipment and spare the judges who need to compete at least a significant part of the costs to compete?
A. On the surface, this sounds like a reasonable suggestion. However, once considerations such as short- and long-term storage, maintenance, transportation, responsibility and liability for damages, the assignment and availability of the hardware, and countless other sticking points are factored in, the likelihood of such a program working is extremely remote.

Q. If pooling used equipment for educating judges is an unworkable solution, why can’t the KCBS simply assign judges to cook with teams?
A. It’s fair to assume many judges would gain experience by rolling up their sleeves and getting dirty by competing. However, having the sanctioning body, organizer, or any other third-party arbitrarily assign judges to teams to fulfill this requirement would likely do more harm than good to all participants. Competition cooks, by nature, are a secretive lot. Most have their own recipes, techniques, timings, and methods that they would probably resent having to divulge in the presence of a stranger.

A cook who is resistant to the thought of revealing even a few of his secrets is more likely to have the judge instead perform superfluous jobs such as watching thermometers, washing dishes, keeping work surfaces clean, and gathering trash. These tasks need performed during the course of a contest but, they border on the menial and punitive when compared to the intended goal of such an assignment program and are not likely to give a judge much insight to the contestants’ plight. In a similar vein, the members of established teams already have their own tasks they perform throughout a contest. Introducing even a well-intentioned interloper into the mix would likely upset the teams’ workflow.

Also, the assignment of judges to teams leads to the very real possibility of personalities clashing. If the two parties are not able to get along with each other for any number of reasons, the intended beneficial contest cooking experience would become a miserable experience for everyone involved. With a turn-in deadline looming large, head cooks snap at their closest family members and friends. The discomfort of having a complete stranger in the mix at that time is discerned for all.

Finally, just because a certified judge has not yet cooked – or has chosen not to compete – simply does not translate to that judge being unqualified or incapable of judging satisfactorily. In practice, many judges do interact with the teams on a personal level. If the right chemistry exists between a judge and the team, the judge or the cook may broach the subject of joining the team to get a chance to view the contest experience from the cook’s perspective.

Q. What is a Master Judge?
A. A Master title indicates a judge has served as a judge in at least 30 contests in a 5 year period, and has competed at a sanctioned contest at least once during that time. That participation may have been as a member of an existing team or by competing as his or her own team. Truth told, the title is largely an honorary one. Achieving the rank does not necessarily mean a Master is any better or more qualified than a certified judge serving at his or her fifth contest. More than anything else, the title is granted by the KCBS to recognize a judge’s dedication to supporting competition barbecue over the course of several years.

Q. Are there any regional differences in what the judges like?
A. This may have been true at one time but most judges and competitors would probably agree the existence of a vast difference in taste according to regions is largely a myth, yet one that can be debated to death. With KCBS contests being held year-round now and many cooks and judges traveling great distances to participate, any significant regional differences that may have exited at one time have largely been eliminated. Right or wrong, most successful cooks are achieving their success by appealing to middle-of-the-road tastes.

Q. Where can I find out more?
A. Go to the KCBS website at On it you will find more information about judging, the location and contact information for upcoming judging certification classes, as well as a schedule of upcoming contests.

For the next couple of articles, I want to cover some other contest topics, judging, the KCBS representative’s role, and the organizer’s input into a contest. I’ve enlisted the help of several BBQ buddies to help write and add content to these articles. Thanks guys. There’s much more to a contest than just cooking. Hopefully I’ll shed a little light on some of the other things that go on, but even then, I’m sure I won’t adequately relay all that happens behind the scenes.

The first in this series is the topic of judging. This can sometimes be a delicate issue, but when all the smoke clears one thing is clear, cooks and judges share a passion for BBQ. And as tumultuous as the cook/judge relationship can be at times, a mutual respect is generally observed between both parties. And you won’t have to dig too deep to find cooks who judge on occasion and judges who cook on occasion. So here it goes…judging, when you flame me, please be kind. This article will focus on KCBS-sanctioned contests (while acknowledging that there are many other sanctioning bodies across the country) by outlining the judging process and then having a Q & A format to elaborate on some points.

At the cook’s meeting, teams receive a set of uniquely numbered Styrofoam boxes for submitting their entries to the judges. After the cooks hand over their box at the turn-in table, a contest rep or an assistant renumbers that box. This is to ensure that judges don’t know which team’s food they are sampling. Table Captains then log the entry number (the new number of course), and carry the boxes (usually six per category) to their respective tables.

At the judges’ table, the captain reads off the numbers of the entries and the judges record the numbers on their standardized KCBS issued score sheet and placemats. The judging begins when the captain opens and presents the lowest numbered box to the judges who then evaluate the appearance and record their scores. Allowable scores are whole numbers between 2 and 9 with 9 being the highest. The table captain scans the entry for any rules violations. If there are none, the box is closed and the next entry in the sequence is opened and scored. This is repeated until all the appearance scores have been recorded.

The boxes are then passed around the table in the same order in which they were presented to the judges for appearance. Each judge takes a sample of the BBQ, placing it on his/her placemat. After all of the entries have been distributed, judges may begin sampling the product for taste and tenderness. Judges will try the first entry, carefully evaluate it, and mark the taste and tenderness scores before moving on to the second sample, and so on. No talking is allowed during this time to prevent the comments of one judge from perhaps influencing the others.

The completed score cards are gathered by the table captain and turned over to the contest reps who enter the scores into the computer. Judges are allowed to discuss entries only after all these tasks have been completed. New placemats and score cards are distributed by the table captain and the process repeats for each of the remaining categories.

Q. Who are the judges?
A. Barbecue judges come from all walks of life, teachers, students, retirees, engineers, construction workers, truck drivers, realtors, farmers, and so on. Despite their varied backgrounds and lifestyles, most judges share a love of great BBQ and a deep appreciation for the people who make it.

Q. What is a certified barbeque judge (CBJ)?
A. To be certified, a judge has attended certification class taught by an accredited instructor recognized by the KCBS. During the class, the judge is taught the various cuts of meats allowed in competition, the scoring system, some standards for testing the tenderness of meat, rules regarding illegal entries and garnishes, rules of conduct, the importance of their role, and more. The students then apply these lessons by judging a mock contest. They are tasked with scoring and spotting rules violations while sampling two or three entries from each of the four main KCBS meat categories.

Q. How does a certified judge get on a roster? Are they assigned by the KCBS?
A. A one-year membership in KCBS is included in the CBJ class fee. The judges then receive the Bullsheet, KCBS’ monthly newsletter. Upcoming contest schedules are listed in this publication. In some cases, if a judge has served at a contest before, the organizer may contact the judge to give them the right of first refusal to serve at the contest. Most of the time however, it’s the judge’s responsibility to contact a contest organizer and request to serve.

Q. Are judges paid for their services?
A. No. They are responsible for picking up their own travel expenses, hotels, etc.

Q. Who finds the judges for a contest?
A. The individual contest organizers are responsible for finding judges to serve at their contests. Usually, eight judges are needed for every six teams competing. Each table has six judges and one table captain. The extra judges can be used at the turn-in table, assigned the task of renumbering boxes or other jobs as necessary. It is also left up to the organizer whether to use certified judges exclusively; or friends, neighbors, co-workers, sponsors, people pulled off the street, or other volunteers; or any combination of the above.

Q. Why should an organizer go through the additional trouble to line up CBJs from far away?
A. As described above, the selection of judges is left to the organizer’s discretion. There are a few sanctioned contests that do not use certified judges at all. Certification does not automatically make good, qualified judges. There are a number of experienced judges who have judged many years without being certified or receiving formal instruction. However, most competitors agree it’s advantageous to compete at contests where the majority of the judges are certified. These people are much more likely to judge according to a set of more narrowly defined and generally accepted standards. There is also an element of accountability with certified judges since they must abide by the sanctioning body’s standards for conduct. CBJs make a commitment to attend contests. Most travel many miles and sacrifice a significant portion of their weekend to serve. These actions demonstrate a level of dedication that the certified judge has to the BBQ passion, a dedication that may or may not be there for the local citizen.

Q. When considering all the costs (time and expenses) why volunteer to judge?
A. Many judges agree their payment is in intangibles. Judges sample bbq from some of the country’s best cooks. That fact alone offsets much of the inconvenience. Judging can also serve as an excellent learning experience, for new competitors as well as for home cooks wishing to improve the quality of their own barbeque. The social aspect also appeals to judge, forming new friendships and developing a sense camaraderie between fellow enthusiasts, judges and competitors alike. Despite its sometimes serious overtones, serving as a judge can be a way of supporting an enjoyable activity.

Q. What happens during the judges’ meeting?
A. The judges’ meeting is held about two hours before the first entries are due. The timing of the meeting allows the reps to count the available judges. With the number of judges known, the reps will be able to determine whether they’ll have to resort to any contingency plans to have enough judges on hand. Seating is determined, making sure to separate married couples or buddies and disturbing new or inexperienced judges around all tables. Tasks such as table captains, turn-in table staff, and others are also assigned during the meeting. If needed, instructions specific to that contest are given by the reps then a CD containing recorded judging instructions (similar to that played at the cook’s meeting) is played for the group. This ensures all judges are made aware of the common set of rules. At the close of the meeting, the judges are asked to recite the Judges’ Oath. They are dismissed with the reminder to keep a respectable distance from the cooks. They are free to wander around the contest grounds, see the sites, and exchange greetings with the teams until they’re needed when the first turn-ins are due.

Q. An oath! Doesn’t that seem a bit hokey?
A. Maybe; but the oath is included to reinforce the importance of the role the judge plays in competition BBQ.

Q. What happens if there aren’t enough judges to go around, certified or not?
A. As they say on Broadway, “The show must go on.” If the number of judges is significantly short, the organizer can round up enough volunteers from bystanders and they are given a crash course in judging by the contest reps. These judges are then interspersed among the tables as evenly as possible to eliminate having one or more tables comprised entirely of inexperienced and quickly trained judges. Most reps, cooks, and judges would agree this is undesirable and used only when necessary. Another solution is to have the judges present double up on the number of entries they judge per category. Usually a table will judge only six chicken entries. When there is a shortage of judges, a table may instead judge 12 in two rounds of six entries each. Table captains can be pressed into double duty, serving as both captain and a judge.

Q. What is a table captain?
A. Captains are generally experienced judges who have given up a seat on the judging panel to allow a new judge to gain valuable experience. A captain oversees the judges at his or her table. They are responsible for maintaining order at the table, keeping the table clean, bringing samples to the table, logging the box numbers, presenting the boxes for appearance, checking entries for rules infractions, collecting score cards, making sure they are filled in properly and legible, keeping the judges supplied with fresh water and napkins, and more. In essence, a captain is the contest reps’ eyes and ears at each table. They monitor the judges to ensure they stay focused on the food on their own plates and fill in the score cards according to their instructions.

Q. When a table captain declares an entry legal, is that the final word on it?
A. Not at all. Any judge can question an entry’s legality and have the captain call a contest rep over to the table for a clarification and final ruling. In many instances, the judge may be viewing the entry from a different perspective and spotted something the captain could not see. Regardless of who spots a possible rule violation, the contest reps are the only people who have the authority to disqualify an entry.

Q. What happens when an entry is disqualified?
A. First of all, disqualifying a team is NOT taken lightly. Most judges and table captains are well aware of the time, money, and prestige each team has invested in their entries and knows the effect a disqualification will have on that team’s chances. Paraphrasing the process: the Representatives convene and make a decision. If it warrants a DQ, the Rep then has the dubious task of informing the cook of the decision and infraction to ensure it’s not repeated in other entries submitted. NOTE FROM JOEY MAC: This topic is important enough to have a complete article dedicated to it and that will be submitted in the near future.

Q. Can a competition cook benefit from serving as a judge?
A. Absolutely. This is especially true for cooks who are relatively new to the contest environment. By participating as a judge, a cook can eavesdrop on other judges as they discuss the entries they have sampled. New cooks will also get to see, feel, smell, and taste a wider variety of flavors and presentations by judging a couple of contests than they are likely to try in many months of practice. This knowledge about what other teams are turning in may also give the budding cook a baseline against which they can compare the quality and appearance of their own entries. Finally, exposing cooks to the entire judging experience may help eliminate some misconceptions cooks may have about judges and the judging process.

This is the time of year competitors get antsy. The holidays have come and gone and you’ve begun thinking about the competition schedule for next year. Where do you begin? How do you choose where to go? How many should you do? Nobody can answer most of the questions you ask yourself except yourself. But some tidbits of advice are in order.

Yes make yourself a budget. Alright, this isn’t an absolutely necessary requirement, but it does help to understand how much you and/or your family are willing to afford on this pastime. It’s essential when determining how to split costs with partners. Some folks choose not to because they have the financial wherewithal to do anything, or they take serious issue with having to budget for a hobby or pastime. I know for me, starting out with a budget helps to thwart disappointment in not being able to do this every week.

Competitions are expensive, from entry fees, to meat, to fuel costs, to lodging, to all the spices, rubs, sauces, etc. And that’s just some of the recurring costs of each contest. If you were very diligent about budgeting, you’d include the start up costs of smokers, and canopies, and coolers, and tables, and…I think you get the picture. Honestly, after the first contest, I didn’t bother to track those one-time costs anymore.

Get used to operating in the red. Competition cooking isn’t a money making venture. There’s some cash to be won, and if you’ve done your homework, and practiced, you might even be able to take some home. But it’s best not to get into this game assuming you can be self supportive with your earnings.

Get out a calendar and look at what constraints you have on your time. Every competitor has the good fortune of being able to dedicate as much time to this hobby as is available to them. Some get to dedicate more than others. Most of us have too many balls in the air just juggling the work/family responsibilities. Add into that already tight schedule several weekends dedicated to cooking, and all of a sudden time becomes a bigger constraint than money. But that’s ok. Taking the time early on to set your own and your team’s expectations of how much you’re going dedicate to competition BBQ will result in a much more fulfilling experience each time you venture out. For instance, there are about 12 – 14 contests that I would love to participate in (not including the Royal and Jack). But after factoring in family vacations, get togethers, dance recitals, birthday parties, work travel schedules, school events, house maintenance, etc; it becomes pretty obvious that I’m not making it to that many. Does that make me a less dedicated person to BBQ? Maybe in the minds of some, but in the end, it’s my mind that has to rest easy. And at the 6 or so contests that I do get to attend, I get to dedicate all my energy towards prepping, cooking and serving the best BBQ I can.

Really this is related to time more than anything else. The further away a competition, the more time consuming it becomes. Determine what your limits to driving distance might be. Is 3 hours you maximum tolerance, or are you willing to drive 6 hours for a competition? When first starting out, most newbies probably keep that driving distance on the small side. As your scores improve and as you meet some success, it’s easier to justify longer drives.

Something else to consider when mapping out a schedule is the journey itself. Some contests are held in remote hovels of Americana. One of the biggest rewards I get out of competition cooking is making the trek to some of these locations. For me it’s an escape from the urban rituals. In some cases, it involves a significant departure from the main highways, enabling me to take a snapshot of rural America that isn’t afforded me on a daily basis. Some competitors already have that I’m sure, but for me; I always look forward to the journey.

Maybe eventually this becomes more important, but especially for newbies; don’t get caught up in seeking high pay out contests. Sometimes it works out that the nearest and best sized contest is the best payout, sometimes it doesn’t. Honestly, so far, I haven’t considered payout in any of the contests I’ve attended. Guess that still reaffirms my distinction as a Newbie.

Aright, bragging rights. Yes, lets all admit it, one of the main drivers for all of us competing in the first place to have the elusive bragging rights that you did this or that at a competition. And some contests have more prestige thus carrying more bragging rights than others. I will also suggest that this should be as far from a newbie cook’s mind as possible. Remember, if the contest has a reputation as a “great” contest, there’s a good chance that many of the best teams and cooks will be there, after all that’s what makes it great. And great equals tough. Its tough not only for the newbie cooks, but also for everyone participating in that contest. I’m not suggesting that just because a contest has a phenomenal reputation to pass it up. Ask yourself what are expectations from attending this contest and if your satisfied that it will be a good experience, do it by all means.

Finally, do a little background digging about a contest you might be interested in. Post a message on the Forum inquiring about a contest, there’s tons of advice to be had. Ask fellow competitors at a contest which ones are their favorites. Another good way to assess a contest is to become a judge, and judge at those contests. I did this for some of the contests that were a little further away than my initial comfort zone. Having judged there and assessed the venue, and the atmosphere, I can better determine whether I want to go through the trouble of transporting all the equipment the longer distance to compete. One contest is getting added to my schedule this year because I did just that.

So get your maps out, your spreadsheets ready, clean up those smokers and start getting motivated. Hope to see you out there soon.

There you sit in the hot sun, not sure whether its exhaustion or relief that’s caused you to collapse in your seat. Your heart begins pumping a little faster. You try concealing your nervousness, but its not working. The heart pounding reminds you that you still have a competitive streak in you. You’re brimming with anticipation. You’ve practiced, and practiced, you’ve prepared, you’ve cooked and you’ve submitted your food to the judges. At the awards ceremony, the moment of truth has arrived…”Tenth place chicken goes to…” Oh how you wish it was your name. But before you get here, there’s a whole lot that happens on BBQ Saturday. Here’s the final installment of the three part series shedding some light onto what goes on at a competition from a cook’s perspective.

BBQ Friday is characterized by pockets of intense activity followed by extended duration of lull time. BBQ Saturday is quite different. It starts sedate and calm, just like the dawn. As the sun rises to its zenith, so does the activity and stress levels of the BBQ cooks, culminating in an hour and a half of self induced penance we affectionately call “turn-in.”

Dawn – BBQ Saturday starts with coffee and the rising sun. First order of business: establish how the briskets and butts have cooked. Are they still cooking at temperature, do the fires need fuel, and what do they look like? We don’t peek at the meat until this point, but now its time. I suppose everyone has a little different opinion here, but for me, dawn is my favorite time of a contest. It’s usually cool and fresh, a welcome relief from the sweltering heat of the previous evening, or the rest of the day to come. It’s filled with anticipation of a good cook and memories of good times and conversations shared just a couple hours earlier. But there’s not much time to take in the moment. Looking at the clock it’s 7 hours or so before rib turn-ins, and it’s time to get them and the cooker ready. Up until this point, all the activities that need done have been manageable, but Saturday morning brings a completely different demand on your ability to manage time. Best practice is to have a plan, a Gantt chart, a white board, a Blackberry reminder, strings around your fingers, what ever it takes to have some reminders of what needs done.

Early Morning – Those hours between 7:00a and 9 or 10a can be different for each contest. The big meats come off and go into their storage. Ribs may or may not get foiled depending on your approach, and chicken will go on sometime towards the end of that time period. The biggest activity during this period should be preparing for the anarchy of the hours between 11:00a and 1:35p. This means getting the prep site cleaned as much as possible, washing greens if you’re using, and getting boxes ready for turn-in. Sauces may need some final tweaking. We usually take some time to start the packing process as well. Things that aren’t needed anymore are prepared for the return trip. You’ll also find yourself chatting with fellow competitors, although now the banter doesn’t have the same light heartedness of Friday night. A feeling of anxiousness begins to creep into body language. There are attempts to cover the nervousness with feigned confidence or nonchalance, but it’s unmistakably there. This is the time where a contest begins to transform from a great gathering of friends to, well a contest. Well wishes are exchanged as the cooks retreat to the privacy of their canopies or campers to prepare for the anarchy ahead.

Late morning – More strangers will start walking by…You’ll have a good gauge on how your brisket and butts have cooked up…If you’re lucky, there will be no Bobcat tractors around to knock over your WSM (yes that happened to me once…great story, with a happy ending!).

After about 10:30a, the real franticness sets in. Butts are wrapped….Briskets are resting…Ribs are cooking…If It’s not on, the chicken will be soon…sauces are simmering….Dishes are being washed…Boxes are going being prepped one more time…Knives are honed…And cooks pace.

11:00a – 11:35aThis is the absolute busiest time of a contest…Chicken and Ribs each demand attention…At first the clock seems to slow down, you’re staring at it every 30 seconds…Chicken comes to temperature…Glaze applied…Ribs need flipped and glazed…Chicken needs moved…Wind comes out of nowhere rocking the canopy…Ribs need some more attention…You look at the clock, and suddenly, the moment of truth has descended up you…

Chicken’s off the cooker.
The best pieces are selected.
They get staged on the cutting board.
They are rotated, and rotated again, and rocked, and shifted, and rotated, and moved around like something resembling a 6 piece shell game.
Fingers become numb from handling the hot meat.
Into the box…doesn’t look right, rearrange, try again
11:50 – 5 minutes till turnings begin
Rearrange again…still not right…rearrange
11:54 – 1 minute
Looks good…a little piece of garnish here…there…looks real good
11:55 – Turn-ins begin
Cooks and runners start walking by.
Take the picture.
Bless it with a little luck
Close it up…wrap it up…hand it to my wife…kids blow kisses…off it goes.

At that point in time at my very first contest I collapsed onto a cooler. I couldn’t believe that my hands could shake so much. I never thought that 15 minutes could pass by in 10 seconds. And I couldn’t answer the question of “why would I choose to subject myself to such pressure?” I must have sat there for a solid 5 minutes, motionless, unable to find an ounce of enjoyment in that experience…when a fellow competitor walked up and patted me on the back and said “Having fun yet? How’d ya do Joey?” That snapped me out of the funk I was in. About that time my wife returned, and the whole world started moving again.

It’s not quite as crazy anymore. My hands don’t shake nearly as bad; I only rearrange the chicken ½ a dozen times instead of 24 like the first contest. And instead of collapsing, we just casually start cleaning up and getting prepped for the next category…Ribs.

12:15 – RIB TURN-IN
This is where I think we start to relax again. Now it’s only about ribs, nothing else is requiring attention. We move to cutting the ribs and sampling…not that we could do much about what we’re turning in at this point anyway. The best ribs are selected and they go in the box. After several contests, I had the plan of how I was presenting the ribs engrained in my head, there was no guess work. Just little things that I guess would be considered a bit anal retentive anymore. And as frantic as chicken might be, ribs just seem a little more relaxed. Same ritual…Done? Yeah. Snap a picture, beg for luck, close, wrap, blow kisses, off it goes to the judges. That’s usually right at 12:30. For those of you new to competition cooking, turn-ins start 5 minutes before the prescribed time and go until 5 minutes after the time. After taking 5 minutes to take in the scene and ‘rib’ a couple fellow cooks as they walk by, we begin to attack pork.

If your reading this article, there’s a good chance you know that pork butts wrapped in foil, and towels, resting in a dry cooler can keep so much heat that even after 4 or 5 hours from the cooker, they are still too hot to handle. But handle we must. For our team this is a two man affair. My partner has one job and I have another. First couple comps we were pretty timid, we gave ourselves PLENTY of time to pull. Now, we have the process down so hopefully, the pork is able to maintain some heat on its journey to the judge’s palate. We taste, make adjustments and additions as necessary. There’s little debate on the presentation. Box is declared complete, picture is taken, box is closed wrapped, has it blown kisses, and it’s off! Preparing pork is messy, the whole area needs cleaned before starting on the final entry of the competition….brisket.

There is probably no meat more telling about its chances upon first slice than brisket. Instantly with the first slice you can tell about the tenderness of the meat. I have no idea why, but I always seem to use up every second worth of turn-in time available for brisket. Don’t know why, tenderness is determined by this point, and I can’t do much about flavor either, should be easy, slice, put it the box and send it away. Always seems like it needs some piddling though. Brisket’s also the absolute messiest of all of the turn-ins. I heard it described once as the “brisket bomb”, brisket pieces and juice get everywhere. We cook two briskets and have learned to make sure you cut into both of them. Sometime you’re surprised by how the “other” one turns out. Now if I cook it at a competition, I am at least going to take a look at it. We finish the box, take the picture, get the kisses, and I personally march it to the judges tent. I guess it’s my way of putting closure to another contest. I usually run into lots of fellow cooks and we all critique our food…”brisket sucked”, “ribs were OK”, “I was happy with chicken”, “who knows about pork”. After visiting for several minutes, it’s back to site…for a beer and to begin the tear down.

I’ll fast forward over the whole tear-down thing this time around. It’s boring, pack things and get them into the van. It’s hard work. It’s usually hot. And all you really want to do is sit down and drink a beer and reminisce a bit.

That brings us back to the awards ceremony. You’ve just turned in some of the best food, or at least you and your team think so, and you’re ready for that “call” to the stage. They start at 10 and work backwards, 8, 7…5 (maybe I did better than I thought?)…3 (no way, not me), 2, 1, and your name wasn’t called. Next category… (my ribs were really good)…10…5 (maybe?)…3, 2, 1. (Oh well, maybe they were spicy…Pork, everyone likes my pork) But when it’s all said and done, you weren’t called there either. Reality begins to sink in, (I know my brisket was too tough), and sure enough, the announcements come and go, and no one called your name. The reserve and grand champions are announced, then you find out they give out your scores as well. You work your way up the Rep handing out the scores, you get yours and at first you’re woefully confused by all the numbers, you start turning pages, and finding your name, middle to lower middle with all categories, except ribs. There you find you’re dead last, yes last place. Someone’s got to be there, but you’d prefer it wasn’t you. Yes this is autobiographical, but what comes next is what BBQ competition is all about.

Dejection doesn’t adequately describe the feeling I had that day. I was shocked. In retrospect I got what I deserved, but it didn’t feel that way on that Saturday. A venerable veteran BBQer came sauntering over, where I was looking in disbelieve at my scores. “You did real good for a first contest Joey”. My first thought was this guy’s just patronizing me, until I made eye contact and saw his concern, and encouragement and that he really meant it. “Can I give you some pointers?” “Sure” I respond. “Get your notebook, every good competition cook’s got a notebook, you got one?” A moment later I pulled out of my bag my notebook, and a smile cracked across Old Dave’s face as he began….”you ever thought about….” Old Dave spent about an hour with me after that first contest. He really told me no secrets, just lots of reassurances, and some tidbits that have made me a better cook. In that hour I made a transformation from a backyard cook to a newbie competition cook.

One year later, at the same contest where I took last place in Ribs, I took my first First Place in any category, and it happened to be in Ribs. How I turned that around is subject for another article. It was I who took that first place plaque home that day, it wasn’t with out plenty of input from many different cooks, like Old Dave, who I’ve met along the way. Saturday’s are bittersweet, but strangely, the bitter times make those sweet moments that much better.

Happy New Year to everybody and start mapping your contest trail out…it’s already January you know!

Joey Mac

It’s cold outside. It’s snowing and they talk about more snow. As I was cleaning snow and ice off my car on a recent subzero morning, all I could think about was a warm mid-summer Friday evening, smokers billowing, beverages flowing, laughter all around, and I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t complain one time next summer about being too hot…yeah right.

Here’s the second installation of the 3-part series on competitions. This one’s all about Friday night: characterized by intense packets of activity followed and extended durations of loafing, visiting, eating, and soaking up the BBQ experience. Friday is the fun part of competition BBQ. The timings below are my basic targets, other’s schedules may vary significantly, but then so does everyone’s BBQ.

11a – 1:00p – Arrival. The first thing I usually do is berate myself for not being earlier. Regardless of my arrival time, I always wish I was two hours earlier. As you arrive, you’ll seek out the organizer or a delegated check-in person. They’ll point you to your site and explain any other tidbits you should be aware of (water, restrooms etc). This person should also be able to inspect your meat. The meat inspection process is simple, they peek in, make sure everything is appropriately handled, and there has been no spicing or marinating etc. This task is best dealt with ASAP, just eliminate that stressor. Otherwise, you’re constantly looking over your shoulder for someone to look at the meat, silently letting your stress level build and build. Best to dismiss it as you arrive.

12:00-2:00 – Site Setup. Accomplished teams will give you one golden nugget of information, get yourself organized. Some are organized in large RVs, others in trailers, others, such as our team, are in a minivan. Knowing where things are, and an order of how things must progress will expedite the set-up process tremendously. We don’t have a punch list, but it wouldn’t hurt, especially for the first time Newbie. We’ve cut our set up time from 3.5 to 4 hours at the first contest to more like 1 to 1.5 hours by the end of the season. The objective of the competition is to prep, cook, and serve the best BBQ you can produce. The sooner you get to those tasks, the more enjoyable the entire event will be for your team. And the sooner your done with the first task of prepping, the sooner you’ll be visiting friends, eating dinner, and assuming that BBQer position of sitting down, propping your feet up, sipping on a beverage. The EZ-ups raise, the tables go up, the cookers get positioned, and the place begins resembling one of those images we’ve seen on TV, a BBQ contest. Adding to the authenticity, you’ll smell someone cooking some kind of BBQ already.

Go greet your neighbors. They will be around you for the next 24 hours and most important, you will finally meet folks that share your passion for BBQ. Family, friends, co-workers express interest in your passion, but few understand why we go through the efforts we do. You’ll finally come face to face with other folks who do understand. Like everything else BBQ, this feeling of camaraderie cultivates “low and slow”, developing its print in your mind as you meet more folks, cook more contests, and sit still in the night, hearing only the opening and closing of pit doors or lids. No it’s not a sudden initiation that’s over after one ceremony, but instead is an evolution defined by a series of events that have no clear ending. This journey starts by meeting your neighbors.

1:00 – 3:00 – Meat prep. This effort ranges from just rubbing or injecting to having to do all the trimming. Late last season, I followed the advice of veterans and did my trimming at home. Trimming meat in less then ideal conditions is a stressor that is easily eliminated. This gets back to the underestimated aspect of BBQ, you have to be able to relax. And the sooner you can get to relax mode, the better the whole event will be. This whole meat prep thing now takes us around 1.5 to 2 hours…and it includes visiting with teams, tracking down water, and heating water for washing. Although my biggest motivator may be my rule: I don’t allow myself any “adult beverage” until the meat is safely tucked back into the coolers. That rule doesn’t apply to the rest of the team.

With the meat prepped, rubbed, marinating, whatever, you’re able to finally crack that beverage, sit down, take a deep breath and relax. No work worries, no worries about meat suppliers, no shopping. So 3-4 hours after arrival, you find that first lull period.

4:00 – 6:00 – Cooks Meeting. This is another contest feature that differentiates newbies from veterans. Vets have heard the CD so often, they can recite it by heart. The CD includes an oral reminder of the rules of a KCBS contest, and at this meeting you’ll also receive your turn-in boxes. Veteran teams just want their boxes, while as a newbie, you’re inclined to pay attention to everything going on at the meeting. While the vets are cutting up and trash talking, newbies have a serious look about them. Or at least they should. It’s a GOOD thing to take this meeting seriously. Listen to the CD, reread the rules, understand them and ask questions if you have them. Nothing could make a competition experience more disappointing than to have the contest rep walk to your tent after turn-ins to inform you of a DQ, a disqualification. When the reps ask for the new teams to identify themselves, don’t be shy. That way, as the evening wears on, folks will be inclined to stop by and see how things are going. Get your turn-in boxes, put them in a safe spot, and go enjoy the rest of BBQ Friday night.

6:00-10:00 – Visit, fraternize, eat dinner, relax. This is one of the finest moments of a competition. Old friendships are reestablished, new ones are made, buzzes come and go, and the “bull” runs thick. This is also when a newbie can go to school. Talk to teams, learn what contests they attended, what they like, learn about cookers. But this is also where things can get out of hand. At some contests, you’ll run across teams that have fully stocked bars with nothing but the most premium “beverages”. That’s part of the fun granted, but you can’t let it get in the way of the primary objective, prepping, cooking, and serving meat. Eventually, a happy medium will be established, and/or you’ll gain an understanding of how to cope with cottonmouth and a pounding head. Legends on the circuit that have done their best work hungover, but there are also examples of some bad product getting put out by the team that had one dozen too many the night before. This is an area that you and you alone will have to figure out. For me, I know my limits, and sometimes feel quite obliged to step right over them.

It’s also during this time frame that most cooks will fire up their cookers. Here’s where another golden nugget of information comes in, know your cooker, and cook the way YOU have decided to cook. You cannot be worried that the team next to you put on pork at 6:00pm, and you think it needs to go on at midnight. People will be putting their briskets and pork on at all sorts of hours. But only you know how you want to cook. Come with your cook plan in mind, and stick to it. If it needs modified at a later time, do so, but don’t be intimidated by what others are doing.

Etiquette, another topic that isn’t discussed much. These are the unwritten rules of behavior at a contest. You will find yourself talking about BBQ in a way you never have. You’ll learn new techniques, rumors of secret recipes, legendary cooking approaches that will assure a call on Saturday. It’s OK to ask questions, but a good rule of thumb is to use your ears more than your mouth. Don’t expect detailed descriptions of rub ingredients, or application tricks. Honestly, over time you’ll learn a lot about those, if you listen. Respect your neighbors. Respect the quiet hours. And try to watch out for your lighting too as your bright halogen lights might be glaring right into someone trying to catch a little snooze.

10:00-1:00a – Sleep. Again, opinions differ here. Some swear they can function just fine with cat naps, while others might get more sleep than they do during the week. Don’t forget that the ribs will have to go on the cooker at dawn. If you function best with several hours of sleep, plan accordingly.

BBQ Friday nights are special. You may find yourself star gazing while in the middle of a ball field, or huddled under a canopy watching buckets of rain come rushing through your cook site. I think one allure of BBQ is the peer acceptance of nomadic behavior you and your fellow BBQers exhibit. BBQ Friday night is when these nomads come to foster the camaraderie with fellow BBQ gypsies.

In the deep of winter, its OK to fantasize about competitions later in the summer. And your fantasies will most likely include fond memories of BBQ Friday night. Merry Christmas fellow Qers and please have a happy and safe holiday season.

Joey Mac

You’ve committed to joining competition BBQ. You’ve practiced and are ready to go. You’ve gotten buyoff from the family and you have your support structure, but now you ask yourself “what goes on?” The following article attempts to describe some of what goes on. The article has been broken into 3 parts: Part 1 describes activities leading up to arrival at the competition. Part 2 covers competition Friday night, and Part 3 discusses competition climax, Saturday.

Part 1 – Competition Preparation. Preparation activity starts early in the week of the competition. Some folks have the fortune of focusing a tremendous amount of energy on this preparation aspect, but for most of us, it’s a hobby and must take a back seat to our jobs and family obligations. Stress levels and anxiety escalate as the week progresses, so when Friday evening comes, you’re thankful for being able to finally execute your craft. The relaxed feeling you get at about 10pm on Friday night of a competition, devoid of all the everyday stressors, is priceless. Here’s a typical week for me.

Monday – Is a light day from a competition standpoint. It’s mostly spent organizing all the stuff to be packed into the minivan. This includes prepping the smokers, double checking the need for and restocking any non-perishable supplies, repairing things that have broken (cookers, tables, canopies), and if necessary, mix up some dry rubs for the competition.

Tuesday – Get the meat on the way home. Brisket from place A, pork from store B, Ribs from supplier C, and chicken from store D. This was the most stressful aspect of cooking last season. Not only did I have the anxiety of going to 4 different places, but there was the additional stress of being at the mercy of what the suppliers had in stock. Even with advanced planning, I was still subject to their whim. Having all the meat in the fridge at home was probably my greatest relief of all the preparation activities. When I finally get home; I help with the fatherly chores of the day (homework, grass cutting, playing ball, t-ball coach, baths, etc) and collapse.

Wednesday – Come home from work, eventually get kids to bed, then I start trimming meat. Chicken, ribs, brisket, whatever needs attention gets trimmed this evening. Usually keeps me up too late. This was something I didn’t start until late in the season, but the convenience of trimming chicken or brisket while at home is worth a little lost sleep. New cooks might not realize that there is nothing stated in the KCBS rules that the meat must be in its original packaging at the time of inspection, just don’t rub it or marinade it or inject with anything prior to inspection. Trimming your meat at home improves the whole experience at the competition. I thought that was hogwash…until I tried it.

Thursday – On the way home from work, I purchase the greens for the contest. Get home, take care of all the fatherly duties again, and then start packing the van. This means emptying the van of its contents, toys, books, ball gloves, strollers, juice boxes, all the seats, its about 10:00pm now. Packing a Dodge Caravan with all the equipment needed for a contest is as challenging of an engineering problem as anyone has ever posed. After the first two contests, I got it down, so in 45-60 minutes, the van is packed except for the coolers holding the meat and greens. I go into the house to wash greens and prep them for the trip. This day in particular the competitive adrenalin start coursing through your system. Up too late again.

All this activity is mind consuming. Two hours each day of commute leaves time to plan, and play out the cook in my head. I mentally go through every facet from meat prep to lighting the fires, to boxing the meat. But that’s not quite enough time. While at work, I’m sure I become more introverted as the week progresses as my mind gets more and more occupied with the upcoming competition. Notice, I didn’t refer to it as a distraction, on the contrary, I get irritated that everything else in life distracts me from focusing on BBQ (yeah, it’s a bit like any other addiction out there!!). I firmly believe that the days leading up to a competition are a main differentiation between newbies and experienced teams. As you gain experience, the time leading up to a competition becomes more programmed, leaving more energy to be spent on focusing on cooking and producing the best BBQ you can.

5:00am – Alarm goes off, shower, pack clothes for the contest, go through lists one final time, pack any remaining items in the van.

8:00am – I hit the road to wherever (most contests for me are between 2 and 4 hours away), and I like to arrive before noon. Stop for ice and a soda, put tunes in the CD player and off we go. I usually realize with in the first hour that I’ve forgotten something, like; salad dressing, charcoal, cutting boards, tongs, or mixing bowls. But at this time, it doesn’t matter too much, because I’ve achieved a BBQ state of mind. Oh I spend some time envious of those lucky folk who pulled up on Thursday night, or are already at the site. But for the most part, I’m as happy as a clam, to be trekking towards my next BBQ adventure.

Next time I’ll go into what happens on Friday after you arrive. But for now, have a Happy Thanksgiving and enjoy the time with friends and family.

Joey Mac

Before the turn-ins begin, or the meat gets cooked, or fires are lit, or the canopy goes up, or the vehicle gets packed, or even the check gets written for the entry fee, you have to start building the support structure for your BBQ adventure. Watching kids, walking the dog, babysitting the house, feeding the horses, doesn’t matter the task, you’ll need some sort of assistance. This may be your hobby, but in the end you still need some additional support from those closest to you. Most times, that means your spouse and your family.

You may embark upon your BBQ adventure with the thought it’s an outlet for you, but between the cash layout to compete, the time impact on your family, and all the BBQ you’ll be feeding them as you “practice”, you’d be best served to get the commitment from them as well. This is easiest accomplished by taking time to involve them in some capacity. Some families have the good fortune of being able to participate in every facet of competition BBQ together, sometimes that’s not feasible. The more they’re involved, the easier it’ll be justify the time you’re away, the money spent, and the stress you impose on your kids, spouse, and yourself.

For me, it wasn’t so much a selling job to them as much as it was bombarding them with the obsession I had for BBQ. They couldn’t help but absorb some of the BS I was feeding them, much more than I expected. For us, it started with the practice sessions. Every time I cooked BBQ, I practiced making a turn-in box. Then we’d make a big production of setting up a mini judging table, opening the box and letting everyone see it and give a score (as much as two year old can give a score). Sometimes I’d have two or more different flavors I’d be testing, and we’d pass pieces around and rank those. Understand I have a 9, 5, and 2 year old. Kids can be brutally honest about flavors, but interestingly enough, I’ve found what they like, judges have also liked the best. Due to their ages, it’s difficult to fully include them in the competition experience, their biggest contribution on Saturdays is blowing kisses as the meats are going to be turned in, yet they have a vested interest in seeing us reap the benefits since they’ve been included from the start.

Our team is a family adventure, my partner being my father-in-law. Originally, I just asked him if he’d like to help out, but after a year of competition, I’ve witnessed his own competitive juices igniting. As he gained confidence, so did his contributions to putting winning product in front of the judges. My mother-in-law is always there to lend a helping hand with the kids, or driving, or taking the initiative to get us our first team t-shirts!

But our BBQ team wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for my wife’s understanding and patience with my obsession. She gets the behind the scenes task of caring for the three kids by herself for much of the weekend, driving 2 or 3 or 4 hours with those same little angels to a competition, keeping them occupied while there. She does this with no complaint. But she’s also become an integral part of my turning out good product. She’s my “spice girl” as her pallet is a great litmus test for the amount of spice that the judges generally will accept. Her keen eye in finishing off turn-in boxes is worth several points at each competition. I’ve watched her competitive juice start to flow as well as we begin to win some awards.

So as you’re getting started, make sure you build the team on a solid foundation. My formula isn’t right for everybody, but competition BBQ doesn’t have to be an individual sport. The trips to the podium are much more enjoyable when you can share them with all your loved ones.

Joey Mac’s season came to end at Arthur, IL a couple weeks ago. We didn’t do as well as we would have liked there, but borrowing from my Cub fan mentality, “wait ‘til next year”. The last contest is bittersweet. Many conflicting feelings abound, disappointment over our showing, elation over finally hitting in chicken, an emptiness at the anticipation of nothing to do but practice for 6 months, fulfilled for having a pretty decent inaugural season.

Taking a moment to reflect on my Newbie season, I’ve concluded the most rewarding aspect about it isn’t the money won, or ribbons, or trophies, but about the friendships established this year. Cooking together with the people who I met at that first contest, meeting new folks who are more newbie than me, and getting to know some other more seasoned competitors are unexpected pleasures of the season. I guess when the smoke all settles after the awards, it’s the friendships and camaraderie that stick out in my mind. In all likeliness, I’ll not see any of these folks until next year, but I expect we’ll pick up right where we left off.

It takes a special type of person to wander the grounds of a competition at 1:00am and talk a fellow competitor off the ledge when his/her cook isn’t going quite right. The Friday night dinner gatherings, the Saturday morning breakfasts, the wandering around at all hours, the unified stress of turn-ins, the decompression that happens as you turn in brisket and you share your doubts with your comrades are what stick out in my mind. You don’t think about this aspect of competition BBQ when you’re making the choice to get involved, but believe it or not, it’s what keeps you coming back.

Like many others, we’ve got several months to contemplate what went right and what went wrong. We get to work on flavor profiles and timings a little more. But while I’m taking a little breather from the intensity of competition cooking, I’m going to also fire up the cookers and cook some BBQ for the sole purpose of enjoying the low and slow method and share that with friends and family. I also get to compete at the Jack Daniels and other events vicariously through others, doing my best to send any good cook vibes I may have to them as they continue on the trail for a little while longer. Good luck to all still active out on the circuit, and good luck to those who are planning to make the leap in the spring.

As for the Blog, next time I hope to speak a little more about what happens at a competition, from arrival to departure. Other plans are to have some guest interviews from seasoned teams to other newbies and how they chose to get started.

And don’t forget if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to send me an email at

And you’re not sure where to start. It’s a bond we all share, everyone was a newbie once, and everyone asked themselves the same question…how do I get started? The path I took may be different from others, but it’s not unique. Some dive in, some try their hand at backyard events, some work with an established team. The internet has made getting involved in competition BBQ much more accessible. For me, the logical place to start was to visit a competition.

Living in the Chicago suburbs, I learned of “little” contest not far away, in Shannon, IL. I asked some friends if they might like to join me on my trip to this little town in Northern IL, no takers. So that Friday, I worked a half day, packed some sodas, and began the two hour drive to what’s referred to as the BBQ Field of Dreams, by myself.

I pulled into Shannon about 2:00p, not knowing what to expect, or where to go. I was vaguely aware of an additional contest going on that Friday called “Butt to Butt” and I was supposed to eventually meet up with someone. I needn’t have worried; it took about 30 seconds to figure out where to go, the BBQ sign pointed me to the back of town.

Not knowing a soul, I walked sheepishly up to the check-in tent. I was greeted by a busy, yet very accommodating Theresa Lake, who introduced me to the first person walking by…a gentleman in Dickie bib overalls, sporting a bushy beard, wearing a Jack Daniels ball cap. Yes my first introduction into the world of competition BBQ was with David Roper. I was instantly assumed into a new world as Mr. Roper spent the next hour escorting me around the grounds, telling me about every smoker, most teams, his favorite beverage, overalls, forks, and of course BBQ. Mr. Roper’s judging duties for the Butt to Butt contest forced us to part ways, but not before he let a little of his BBQ passion rub off on me.

So began my fact finding mission. Having received the grand tour, I was armed with the confidence to start approaching teams, to chat with them and understand how to get started. I spent about 6 or 7 hours chatting with folks that evening, these same folks have become my friends on the circuit today. As I was leaving the grounds that night, I knew I was hooked. I wasn’t really sure how I needed to proceed, but I knew I’d found the right outlet for my passion for BBQ.

I think it’s imperative to visit a competition before jumping in. It’s even better if you can be a dishwasher or helper for a team. Here are a couple suggestions and comments about visiting a competition.

1) Think about going on Friday afternoon/evening. This is by far the best time to actually converse with the participants. Everyone is usually jovial and fairly relaxed. Oh, folks will be busy setting up and preparing things, but overall it’s a lot more laid back than on Saturday.
2) If you do visit on Saturday, beware of the hours between 10:00a and 1:35pm. These are typically the busiest of the day. Ribs cooking, chicken cooking, large meats coming off, box preparation, the whole turn-in melee can turn the most tender cook a tough and surly SOB. Feel free to watch from afar, but the easiest way to make enemies is to barge in with questions like “can I see your brisket?” Even after turn-ins, many teams are in a frantic clean up mode, packing their stuff, and making every attempt to get home at reasonable time on Saturday.
3) Regardless if its Friday or Saturday, if a cook or a team are busy and they seem to be paying attention to their cooking, they probably are. It’s not meant to be rude, it just the simple fact that they are there to prepare, cook, and present their food. Visiting and revelry are part of the scene too, but only when appropriate. If someone seems busy, politely excuse yourself and come back later. Chances are, you’ll get invited back to visit at a less busy time.
4) Ask questions, but don’t expect secrets. This is a great opportunity to learn the lessons of others, but not necessarily the details of how to make good competition BBQ. Find out how and why they got started. What they did right, what they thought they did wrong. Don’t go in asking about specific ingredients or techniques. Some of that information will come naturally, but it comes over time. It’s far better to use this opportunity to learn the individuals and characters on a team. Everybody at these events are obsessed about BBQ and most are more than willing to share that obsession with others. In the words of Cheryl and Bill Jamison, authors of Smoke and Spice, “Real barbeque is bragging food.” When given an opportunity, all cooks like to do at least a little of that.
5) Visit some of the BBQ related internet forums prior to making the voyage to a competition. Chances are you’ll find a team inviting folks to come by. It’s a good segue into conversation while at the competition…”hey I saw your post on the Forum…’

My guess, if you’ve been serious enough to seek out a competition, took the time to drive there and try to meet folks, you’ll walk away knowing that you’re ready to try your hand at competition BBQ. Funny thing though, you went there seeking answers and you’ll leave with many more questions…welcome to the world of a newbie.

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