I moseyed on down to Barbecue Fest around 1:30 p.m. Friday, braving the heat and the searing afternoon sun. Around that time, people were shuffling past me with white Styrofoam boxes, hurrying into the judges’ tent with their entries in the seafood competition (some of them even followed closely by cameramen.) The first tent I came across was the Cattlemen’s tent, where they were selling grills along with the book Everybody Grills. Someone told me that if you win a competition at Barbecue Fest and say “Thank you, Cattlemen!” you get a $1,000 extra in prize money. (I think they were just pulling my leg?)
The first competitors I met were the representatives from Cajun Cookers in Jackson, TN, who teamed up with Sysco for the competition. Darron Hicks came out to chat with me a little, having just entered his barbecue shrimp in the competition. His family started competing in 1985, and he has been trained by his father ever since. The recipe for their barbecue is around 100 years old, and Hicks describes it as “real basic.” “The brown sugar brings out the natural taste of the pork,” he says, adding that it isn’t too sweet. He says, “If you want something sweet, I’ll get you some apple pie.”
Next door were some Danish competitors bringing international flare to the mix. They let me try some of their lime-basted salmon, topped with red pepper cayenne sauce and ham from Skagen. Of course it doesn’t get more Nordic than salmon, but the team is competing in all the other events too, except for Whole Hog and Miss Piggy Idol. Led by Martin Mygdam, the team is comprised of Danes from all over Denmark, some of them working as Weber representatives there. Though this is only their second year, they’ve increased their grillers from five last year to eight this year.
Gnarly Head Wines from Lodi, California, near Napa were offering samples of their crisp Pinot Grigio to passers by, and Boggy Pond Cookers from Memphis had their charming Granny hog sitting out front.
We passed by Modern Porkfolio Theory’s tent and checked out their Tunisian-inspired, winning T-shirt design.
The Maker’s Mark tent, transformed into to Meat Makers, was cooking up some smoked turkey, ribs, halibut tacos, and rabbit for the exotic meat. Chris Poindexter says they’ve been around since 2003, but they’ve become increasingly serious about the competition. “We’re usually in the top 20,” he says, “but we’ve been sixth before.” They’re looking to make their mark this year.
It was around this time that we spied John Willingham’s tent, where a whole raccoon was smoking inside his patented Wham Turbo Cooker. (Mr. Willingham has 17 patents and was just recently admitted into the National Barbecue Hall of Fame.) I was a little reluctant to try the raccoon — the urban raccoon’s trash diet isn’t too appealing, plus I assumed they’d be gamey — but these are farm-raised raccoons, and the meat was actually very tender and not unlike pork.
Teamed up with the top chefs from Gold Strike Casino and Hotel, the Willinghams offered a delectable, pistachio-encrusted, apple-wood bacon-wrapped halibut and a Moroccan seared duck. A volunteer at the tent, Russ Ford, showed me the 4 x 4 smoker, powered by small oak pellets fed through the bottom of the cooker, which can hold up to five whole hogs at one time and 300 slabs of baby back ribs. He also demonstrated the patented Willingham weenie rack that can be hung inside any of the cookers.
Next we came upon the Chitown Cookers, a decidedly young group of barbecuers who turned out to be the second generation of one of the first teams at barbecue fest. Davis Scully explained that his father along with some of his teammates’ fathers began the Chitown cookers team in the festival’s third year. After 15 consecutive years of competition, the first generation hung up the towel only to have the second-generation cookers swoop in and continue the tradition.
It’s their fourth year at the festival and the second generation’s T-shirts read “We’ve never won the cooking, but we always win the party.” I can attest: while I was chatting with Davis, the fourth annual Chitown Flippy Cup Tournament was underway in the background. But they’re also serious about barbecue; before the festival, they had an intramural barbecue sauce competition with about 12 different sauces in the running.
Finally we stopped by the Ques Brothers’ tent. They won second place in the booth competition, losing out to a Lowe’s sponsored booth. But with downtown blogger Paul Ryburn, a fully functioning fountain out front, and a cool sandy dance floor inside, the tent was still a happening place.
And lo and behold, behind the scenes we found Willie Wagner of Honky Tonk Barbeque in Chicago, and his kids. You might remember these guys from an earlier blog post, and when we caught up with them this time they were hard at work, aiming to win the shoulder competition. “I do ribs, too, but shoulder is what I do best,” said Willie, who also pointed out that it isn’t about the sauce so much as “the rub and the smoke and the wood and the meat.” He also mentioned that he cooks six days a week, so he sees the festival as a vacation.
Sounds like a pretty crazy idea of a vacation, but who isn’t a little barbecue crazy this weekend?