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

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Chicken breasts on the grill at the Minnesota in May barbecue competition // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Twelve chicken thighs are removed from the pit. They are all identical—bones manicured, skin trimmed, dusted with seasoning. They’re dipped in a bowl of barbecue sauce, salted, and placed on a sheet of tinfoil. They look less like chicken than the polished knobs of a mahogany armoire.

This chicken is perfect, but also, it’s not perfect. The meat is impossibly tender, and juicier than church gossip. But it’s smothered by an avalanche of salt, sugar, and smoke. The flavors are aggressive to the point where I don’t really want to eat more than one. But I can’t help it. These gleaming little garnets of dark meat are just too tantalizing. I eat four.

That contradictory chicken is the product of the strange world of competitive barbecue. I’m chatting with Chris Bjork in the backyard of his St. Paul home. He and his brother Greg form the barbecue team, Totally Sauced. It’s May Day and the sun is shining. We’re drinking beer and watching smoke dribble from the columns of their pits on a practice-run of chicken and ribs.

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Barbecue at the the Minnesota in May competition // Photo by Daniel Murphy

I want to know what drives someone to compete on the barbecue circuit. I will come to learn they all have more or less the same story: They’re competitive by nature, have always loved barbecue, and people told them you make the best ribs in the world. They see a barbecue competition show on TV, think I could do that, enter their first competition, lose spectacularly, but vow to return and claim victory.

Chris pulls five racks of ribs from the pit. “It’s all about ego,” he says. “It’s like drag racing, it’s like softball.” He sections the racks into 60 ribs and finds the perfect eight, the ones he would turn in for judging. I eat a few of the cast-offs and they’re the same as the chicken—expertly cooked, flavors cranked up to an unreasonable degree. I ask Chris about the intensity. He chuckles.

“In a way, it’s a game,” he says. “The most important thing is tenderness. Otherwise, everything has to be balanced.”

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Chris Bjork at the Minnesota in May barbecue competition // Photo by Daniel Murphy

While I marvel at their smoking skills, I’m struck by the obvious investment Chris and Greg have put into competing: two large insulated smokers and a trailer outfitted with coolers, tables, utensils, spices, timers—the works. It’s strange to me because I’ve always thought of barbecue as inexpensive—a way to feed a lot of people with cheaper cuts of meat.

But competitive barbecue, I learn, involves serious cash. “It’ll probably cost me $700–900,” Tony Korthaus says of entering the upcoming competition in St. Paul. I meet him at Quetopia, his barbecue supply store in Minnetonka. “The entry fee is $300. The meat costs can range anywhere from $300–600.” He’ll spend $300 on his brisket alone.

And what for? “You’re competing for a 4-H ribbon,” he laughs. “You place in the top 10 in a category and you get your name called and it’s an amazing feeling. Then you realize you spent $1,000 on a little ribbon.”

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

It’s possible to make a living on the barbecue circuit, but the investment is massive and the grind is intense—20 to 30 weekends every year, traveling, competing, countless Saturdays spent hunched over a smoker in some random parking lot and not with your family.

“These teams can sustain themselves,” Tony says, “but then again, there’s a subjective nature to how these things are judged—sometimes it’s almost like luck of the draw.” He estimates maybe one in 10 teams that enter a competition recoup their investment in prize money.

Next page: Competitive ‘cue, live and in person

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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.