Whether you grew up barbecuing or came to it later in life, you can’t do it for long without finding out about barbecue contests. Eventually, you will get the itch to try. Maybe you even catch one on TV. That’s the fastest way to get it, that itch. I mean, I can come home after a rec league basketball game and watch a pro game and know without thinking that I’m not that good. That I’m not even close. That I could never even get a sniff of a decent college program. But if I watch Paula Deen or some other grinning TV head bite into Grand Champion ribs and look into the camera with a bewitched smile and tell the Food Network audience ‘These are some pretty dang good ribs,’ what I think is, ‘Hey. I make pretty dang good ribs, too.’
Thing is, everybody who ever pulled a rack of ribs or a brisket or a beer-can chicken out of a backyard smoker is proud of their product. It’s pretty much impossible to bite into some barbecue you made yourself at home and taste how much better it is than the restaurant stuff and not get a little chesty about your game. Maybe you’ve even been to an event and seen the giant smokers and the RVs and the custom trailers and the beer cans and the beads and the parties and the girls and the tired eyes and tasted the product and smelled that smell, the porky smoky meaty greasy funk that hangs in your clothes for two washes, and you’re sorry for it to go when it does. And you, you with the pit in the yard and the secret rub for brisket and the encouraging neighbors who say, ‘You really oughta try entering these’ around a mouthful of sparerib…you’ve wondered. Could I compete?
I got there around noon on Friday. Normally, that’s when they would have too, but they’re on their home field for this event, so they had brought in their gear the previous night. But the only thing that had happened by the time I arrived was to put the team RV into park, and open some beer. I had one myself, we made introductions, and I received a very informal briefing: ‘We’ll light the smoker tonight. We’ll prep ribs, chicken thighs, a couple butts, and a brisket at some point. We’ll put them on the smoker between midnight and tomorrow. This is Stan, Rob, and William. You ready for another beer?’
I wrote that for a magazine a couple of years ago, covering a competition where I caught the bug. Formed a team and everything. We call ourselves “Beer & Smoking in Las Vegas,” ostensibly after the best article I ever wrote but really in honor of my hero Hunter Thompson. We’ve competed six times, but Sept. 13 we have our first home game, Forest Park’s Ribfest.
I’ve seen teams compete on their home turf before. Some of them really buckle down, focus, try to show off for the people they know. Others turn it into a huge messy homecoming weekend tailgate party. I haven’t bothered to try to decide which way I want to go. Knowing my friends, that decision will be made for me with a lopsided vote in favor of the party. Which is fine. Barbecue is a social thing more than a competitive thing, and God bless it for that. (I tend to view competitiveness as a mild mental disorder, something in the same family as an aversion to airplanes or spiders.)
It’s weird to be thinking about a competition I could walk to, rather than something where I have to load up two SUVs and a trailer for a weekend trip. (The worst part of every competition is getting in the car after two sleepless, showerless days on a campsite with a long drive home and a strenuous unloading on the agenda.) Ribfest is only ribs, rather than the more common ribs-pork-brisket-chicken, and I’m looking forward to that change of pace. It’ll be good to have some time to just chill at one of these.