One team’s quest to win the world’s most prestigious barbecue contest
Members of Mad Hogs and an Englishman swab their meat with special sauces (one secret ingredient: grape jelly) and cook it very slowly.
Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City, Mo.Skip to next paragraph
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Jim Belt is working the 15-pound chunk of beef brisket with the intensity and dexterity of Michelangelo sculpting the Pieta. First he delicately carves it into six long slices.
Then he swabs each one with homemade barbecue sauce (secret ingredient: grape jelly) before laying the pieces gently in a Styrofoam box.
Next, team member Barb Frank primps the meat as if it’s a beauty contestant. She fluffs the bed of lettuce it sits on. She adorns the slices with florets of parsley. She dabs away stray drops of sauce. “Four minutes!” Charlie Frank, her husband, barks out.
That’s how long the members of Mad Hogs and an Englishman – a good name for a rock band, but it isn’t – have until Charlie, the designated runner, must spirit their entry over to the judging tables for the 1:30 p.m. turn-in. (Charlie timed the walk the day before – three and a half minutes.) Jim gives the meat one final misting with water, making it glisten. Then the Styrofoam box is laid in an insulated carrying container, and Charlie darts off, joining a rivulet of runners flowing into the judging area.
Similar scenes will play out here all afternoon at what is officially the American Royal Barbecue, but unofficially is the holy grail of grilling competitions, the mecca of seared meat, the Royal Ballet of ribs.
This year, nearly 500 teams from across the country converged on the site of the old Kansas City stockyards to compete for $100,000 in prizes and the glory of taking home a ribbon from what’s become the most prestigious barbecue contest in the world. At least one team from Canada – BBQ Bob and the “Eh” Team,” from Whistler – made the trip.
Teams arrived on a recent Thursday and Friday in mobile homes, pickups laden with smokers, cord wood (pecan, hickory, and wild cherry are popular), charcoal briquettes, hay bales (to make rustic borders around their cooking areas), awnings, coolers, canopies, outdoor furniture of every description, sound systems, satellite TVs, outdoor lights, and other accoutrements indispensable – and probably dispensable – to cooking and comfort. By Saturday, with live country music blaring, smoke billowing, and thousands of spectators milling about the grounds, the scene resembled a neo Woodstock, but with less mud and better food.
Almost as important as a smoker and a cooler full of meat, barbecue teams need clever names: Mason-Dixon Swine; Porkrastination; Chix, Swine & Bovine, BBQ; Squeal of Approval; the Hog Whisperers; Pig Newton – there’s no end of porcine puns on display.
The contest took place over two days. Saturday was the Invitational (the “World Series of Barbecue”), open only to winners of sanctioned competitions in the past year – 106 teams in all. Sunday was the Open Competition, for any team with an entry fee.
Groups compete in four basic meat categories: beef brisket, ribs, chicken, and pork. Secondary categories include vegetables (yes, they have a few of those), beans, potatoes, sausage, and even desserts.
Kids wield tongs and spice rubs as well. Children ages 6 to 10 square off to see who can produce the best hamburger, while older kids, ages 11 to 15, match chicken recipes.