The World of Competition BBQ
Food sport in general and competition barbecue in particular are growing exponentially. Find me a show on the Food Network that’s not people competing with their cooking skills. There are a few shows, but the vast majority are competitions. Gone are the days of Emeril preaching the virtues of pork fat. While it might be hard to find a TV chef do a step by step demonstration on how to make a lobster bisque, we do get people turned into culinary rock stars one mystery box at a time.
In terms of barbecue, there have been cooking competitions for almost as long as there’s been fire. There are legions of pitmasters competing throughout the warmer months whether at: a Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) event which culminates at the American Royal; World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (WCBBC) which ends at Memphis in May; Steak Cook Off Association (SCA) which is now in dozens of countries; World Food Championships (WFC) which currently shells out $100,000 for their winner; and let’s not forget the Jack Daniels Invitational (aka the Jack), which is an invite only event held in Lynchburg Tennessee every Fall.
The big three barbecue contests, in no particular order, are the American Royal, Memphis in May and the Jack. The first is held in the Fall at the Kansas City International Raceway in Kansas City Kansas. Should you attend, Thursday and Friday are the party nights. Saturday afternoon is the time to catch the kids cooking. If you are going to hit the Royal, you will need to know some people. There are amazing brand activations with open bars and lots of music and maybe a mechanical bull or two. I highly recommend the Operation BBQ Relief Pigapalooza. Multiple top notch teams compete in a whole hog cook off and, with a ticket to this event which is separate from your ticket to the Royal, you can sample them all. The pig presentations are almost better than eating all that porcine perfection. One year, a certain artist named Stretch even made pigs fly!
If you overindulge and need a refresher, there is an IV station on site to give you that hydration and electrolyte boost. Remember to pack some sunscreen. The event is on the interior of a racetrack. Trees and race cars don’t go together very well so there are a grand total of two wispy trees on the property and they don’t provide much shade. Also, if the temps crawl above 90 in KC, they will be close to 20 degrees hotter there with the entire racetrack infield being asphalt. There are two air-conditioned buildings on the infield. Ask someone in an orange vest and they will tell you where to find them. In terms of the food, a lot of those activations are catered by some of the more well-known pitmasters. The Prairie Fresh event is particularly tasty and festive. That was the site of the best burger I’ve ever had. Teams compete in chicken, ribs, pulled pork and brisket plus a bunch of ancillaries. The yearly induction into the barbecue Hall of Fame happens on Saturday as well. Don’t bother attending on Sunday. There isn’t much to do for the general public on the final day.
Memphis in May is, well, in Memphis and in, uh, in May. After a year off because of Covid and then a move to Memphis Tiger stadium while its long-time river front home, Tom Lee Park, was being remodeled and landscaped, Memphis in May will be back on the Mighty Mississippi at Tom Lee Park for 2023.
Every night at Memphis in May is a party at the north end. At least in the previous configuration of the park. That’s where the giant two story, land locked, party barges set up. Live music, DJ’s, spotlights, giant display screens and lots of adult beverages flow freely. You have to have a different ID bracelet to get into each one of them so reach out to people you know who can hook you up with one of the crews. Also, if you are overindulged at MiM and need an IV to tackle the day, seek the firefighters. Don’t call 911. Find the party deck that the firefighters have set up and rumor has it an IV can be procured.
The south end is more of a traditional BBQ event except WAY bigger. Also, rather than teams cooking multiple proteins to be crowned the winner, each team picks one of three categories, ribs, pork shoulder (pulled pork) and whole hog. The winners of those three categories have their scores put against each other. The best score wins title of Grand Champion (GC). Second place is Reserve Grand Champion (RGC). Again, if you want to sample something other than an arena sausage or a slightly more exotic kabob, you will need to know some people. Social media is your friend here. Find the list of teams on the MiM website and then reach out to them and see if you can score a tour of their respective pits. That should get you some samples and maybe a cold beverage.
While the north end is party town, that doesn’t mean the other end is boring. I’ve seen an entire pig deboned and turned into a 200lb, head on porchetta. I’ve seen the Throne of Swords from Game of Thrones, but with spatulas. And I’ve even seen a guy named Stretch paint a whole hog with gold paint! Yeah, that Stretch. The guy gets around!
And finally, the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue which is affectionately called the Jack. I had the opportunity to not only attend the Jack in 2022, but also to judge it. Compared to the other two big event, it’s much more intimate and relaxed. There isn’t nearly as much foot traffic (which should bode well for those hoping for some samples). Lynchburg is a snapshot of a simpler world. A Norman Rockwell painting frozen in time for all of us to go and appreciate an entire town that could be named Nostalgia, or maybe Olden Times Americana. If you take the distillery tour and then head to the gift shop on the premises, you will notice that everything in the gift shop is a bottle of whiskey. Not a single t-shirt or hat or even lapel pin. For that, you have to head a couple blocks over to the hardware store which is on a town square that could still be featured in an episode of Mayberry. The 100+ year old building houses all the swag (plus more bottles of the good stuff) that you can possibly want.
Step out of the Hardware store at the right time on Friday evening, and there’s a literal parade of BBQ competition teams tramping through the street on the way to the buses that take them to the party on Top of the Hill. It was amazing how many countries were represented. If you get a chance to take one of those buses (a wrist band is required and not easily acquired) wait for sunset and get that selfie of the town and the gorgeous fall colors in the background of your pic.
If attending the event, head to the judging tent early. Camp out on one of the small sets of bleachers on either side.
The judges are served copious amounts of food that they can’t possibly finish. The table captains on the sides of the judging tent will often hand out samples to those on the bleachers. Make sure to stick around for dessert. Holy smokes, the desserts alone would make this event beyond special.
Food sport is the fastest growing sport in the country, but even if you aren’t ready to test your skills against other cooks/chefs/pitmasters, you can still go and enjoy the sites, smells and maybe even a taste or two.
MiM: Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest held in the city of Memphis in the month of May
The Royal: The American Royal World Series of Barbecue held in Kansas City, Kansas in late September/early October
The Jack: The Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue held in Lynchburg Tennessee in October
Turn in box: The Styrofoam container full of delicious barbecue that each team submits for judging
Grand Champion: The competition barbecue team that accumulates the highest total scores across all the categories and thus wins the biggest prize and trophy from the event
Reserve Grand Champion: The competition barbecue team that accumulates the second highest total scores across all the categories and thus wins the second biggest prize and trophy from the event