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.