Competitive ‘cue: Blue ribbons and contradictions on the barbecue circuit

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There’s no such thing as too many Big Green Eggs at the Minnesota in May barbecue competition // Photo by Daniel Murphy

I need to see it for myself. On a blustery 45-degree Friday afternoon, I go to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds for the Minnesota In May state championship barbecue competition. There are over 70 teams competing, almost all from in-state, and no one seems to mind the conditions—intermittent drizzles of rain, chilling wind. Instead, they all tell me about a competition at Mille Lacs a few years ago when it was 25 below.

MN in MayStray observation #1: The Minnesota in May logo features a smiling pig, dressed as Paul Bunyan, hoisting a rack of cooked pork ribs, while a cow and chicken lovingly stare at him, as if to say, Me next! Not sure which part of this unsettles me the most. Am I thinking too hard about it?

The range of cooking setups that surround me is staggering—from six-figure full-kitchen campers and RVs, to dented oil drums beneath tradeshow tents. Everyone claims that pricier rigs don’t guarantee more victories. But since the winning barbecue might be decided by fractions of degrees of tenderness, it’s hard to imagine precision cookware isn’t something of an advantage. During this cool and windy competition, the UBS cookers—the modified oil drums known as upright barrel smokers, or ugly barrel smokers, depending on who you ask—are having trouble holding their temperature.

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Photo by Daniel Murphy

Blue ribbons can happen on a budget, though. The 2014 American Royal World Series of Barbecue championship chicken was cooked on a $400 Green Mountain Davy Crocket Pellet Grill, a snazzy little Wi-Fi controlled number gaining popularity on the circuit. Regardless of size, shape, or expense, teams refer to their smoker as a “pit,” meaning a $15,000 piece of computer-controlled machinery is referred to like you would a hole in the ground.

For this two-day event, the pits are loaded with pork shoulder and brisket late Friday night. I’ve been told that the key is to drink enough on Friday night to be able to sleep in the back of your car, but not so much that you’re too hungover to cook the next morning. Like Chris says, good barbecue is all about balance.

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A cooking schedule at the Minnesota in May barbecue competition // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Saturday morning is quiet. The air is still. The fairgrounds are sedate. There’s no music, no commotion, just the opening and closing of trailer doors, and cooks eyeing their pits with an expectant gaze. The chicken and ribs started cooking earlier this morning. Now, all four of the meats are coasting toward turn-in time, beginning with chicken at noon and ending with brisket at 1:30pm.

Stray observation #2: Standard joke when looking at pork shoulder: “That’s a nice looking butt there.” Standard responses: “Don’t talk about my wife like that!” or “At least buy me a drink first!”

At 11:55am, dozens of people carry identical Styrofoam boxes of chicken down Lee Avenue to the Little Farmhands Building for judging. The procession seems almost religious—a parade of silent supplicants bearing offerings of charred flesh to the altar of some faceless barbecue god.

The deities behind the curtain here are barbecue judges certified by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS). There are 14 KCBS-sanctioned events in Minnesota this year. There are 18 other KCBS competitions happening around the country on this same weekend.

The judges, who’ve taken a KCBS oath that charges them with preserving “truth, justice, excellence in barbecue, and the American way of life” are separated into groups of six. The boxes are opened, the chicken presented for a first viewing. Each judge has a glass of water and a stack of saltines. They place each thigh in a square on their placemat and the eating begins.

This is how championship barbecue becomes both perfect and off-putting. A judge might only take a single bite of any one entry (they’ll eat a full pound or two of meat by the end of the day). Thus a cook has to pack every ounce of flavor possible into a single bite, and the winning meat becomes something like the most well-targeted missile strike.

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Photo by Daniel Murphy

“It’s the truth,” Chris told me during his practice cook. “We are injecting our meats. We’re brining, we’re over-seasoning meat. When you ask if the best barbecue wins, I laugh, because, yes and no. It’s fucking great barbecue that wins. But if you’re cooking for your family, and you want eat a whole bunch of ribs, you won’t be able to eat too many of these.”

The KCBS has gone to great lengths to set clear expectations for the entries and how they’re judged. But in a larger sense, what even is perfect barbecue? It’s like a zen riddle. How could the best barbecue be something you don’t want to eat too much of? These meats are like contestants in a beauty pageant—perfect on paper, but in a way that feels strange and contrived.

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Photo by Daniel Murphy

And what happens to all this meat? Teams might cook 20 pounds of pork butt to turn in a perfect 20 ounces; only a small fraction of the meat cooked ever reaches the judging table. Some teams vacuum-pack leftovers to give to their sponsors, like meaty dividends. This competition provided extra pork butts for teams to cook and then donate to charity (they collected over 800 pounds of food between barbecue and canned good donations). And that’s all well and good, but it still feels odd that a massive barbecue gathering only feeds people incidentally.

And as I look out over the fairgrounds, the ironies are thicker than a haze of hickory smoke. Barbecue should be cheap. This can be expensive. Barbecue is personal and subjective. This imposes standards for “perfection” that don’t objectively lead there. Barbecue should be about nourishment. This doesn’t seem like it’s about eating at all. What gives? Am I still thinking too hard about it?

Chris and Greg take first place in ribs and sixth place overall. Tony and Quetopia win the overall grand championship and entrance to the American Royal Invitational in Kansas City in the fall.

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A team at the Minnesota in May barbecue competition // Photo by Daniel Murphy

When I return to my first question—why would anyone do this?—the most common response I get is simple: It’s a hobby. I get it. Hobbies aren’t supposed to make sense. Mine don’t make sense, either. I may find competitive barbecue too expensive and kind of pointless, but that’s also exactly how I would describe golf, which I love.

Still, I can’t help but wonder why competitors would spend all this time and money just to seek the one-bite approval of some random judges and a little ribbon. If I were this great at barbecuing, I’d spend that money cooking meats with my family and friends.

But then I realize, that’s exactly what they’re doing. Their competitors are their friends. More than one person describes the group as a “barbecue family.” And that’s not a stretch—every competitor I meet is the kind of instantly welcoming, affable person I’d want to drink a beer with every weekend, too. I finally understand how a first-time competitor could get hooked. This isn’t a competition at all. It’s a community.

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John Garland About John Garland

John Garland is the Senior Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in real life at various bar patios in South Minneapolis.