THE ultimate backyard barbecue takes place in a parking lot.
Every fall, several hundred barbecue teams descend on Kansas City, Mo., to compete in the American Royal Barbecue, an annual cookoff contest that opens the two-month-long American Royal Livestock, Horse Show, and Rodeo.
This year, at the recent 15th annual contest, 287 cooking teams from every region of the country came to compete for $30,000 in prizes and the glory of taking home a ribbon from what's become the biggest and most prestigious barbecue contest in the world.
The teams, which consist of a chief cook and as many assistants as needed, come with some clever names: Rib Ticklers, Hogmania, Slaughterhouse Five, American Pigilos, the Rib Doctor, Bum Steers, Hawgs * Us, Fine Swine, and Charlotte's Rib were among the standouts.
A typical team arrived in a pickup carrying a large smoker and other cooking equipment, with a small trailer in tow. Many teams showed up with mobile homes suitable for cross-country travel, pickups loaded with hay bales (to make rustic borders around their cooking areas), cordwood (pecan, hickory, and mesquite were among the favorites), charcoal briquettes, awnings, canopies, outdoor furniture of every description, refrigerators, portable toilets, outdoor lights and decorations, sound systems (some large enough to double as public-address systems), and other items indispensable to cooking and comfort.
Contestants are given three parking spaces with their $100 entry fee, but they can buy more if they want. Some teams use as many as 12 spaces to install elaborate cooking areas that resemble theatrical sets. Most cooks are avid amateurs; a handful work in restaurants.
Watching the stream of pickups slowly filling up the vast parking lot and setting up camp on what used to be the grounds of Kansas City's stockyards, is like watching the emergence of a tent city, but with lots of refreshments and folding chairs.
The American Royal Barbecue includes five different competitions. This year they were held on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. The event opened with the Invitational (the ``World Series of Barbecue''), for teams that had won major competitions in the past year. This year, 41 teams competed for a top prize of $5,000 in six meat-cooking categories: beef brisket, ribs, poultry, lamb, sausage, and pork.
On Saturday, most of the 287 teams competed in the Open competition, which included the same meat categories, plus separate events for side dishes (beans, potatoes, and vegetables), barbecue sauce, and showmanship.
Contestants in the select Invitational contest started firing up their smokers the night before and began cooking in earnest late that night and into the wee hours of the next morning.
In the world of barbecuing, the watchword is ``slow.'' Five pounds of pork ribs smoked at 250 degrees F. can take 8 to 10 hours. Many participants cook their beef brisket 12 hours and longer.
Judging for the Open began at noon on Friday, and a different meat was judged every half hour. This year, between 500 and 600 judges were employed for all the competitions. They ranged from food writers to professional cooks to barbecue aficionados.
Contestants have a window of five minutes before and after the deadline to deliver their meat to the judges, so timing is critical. Entries are submitted in numbered Styrofoam boxes, and are judged on presentation, tenderness, and taste (with the taste score counting double).
According to the rules of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which sanctions the American Royal and many other competitions, presentation dishes can be garnished only with green-leaf lettuce and parsley.
The American Royal Barbecue is pervaded with a festive atmosphere befitting Kansas City's most famous cuisine, but things get pretty businesslike when a deadline nears.
One team from northern Virginia, Death Row Barbecue, was especially efficient as it prepared a rib entry in the Invitational. Led by chief barbecuer Barbara Correll, her assistants, each with a specific job, checked and cut the meat, prepared the lettuce bed in the presentation box, arranged and rearranged the meat, primped the parsley, cleaned the outside of the box, and whisked the entry off to the judges in a flurry of well-choreographed movement.
Afterward, there were a few minutes to sample the ribs (only a small part is sent to the judges), but with the deadline for the next meat category approaching, it was back to the smoker and cutting board.
While not for vegetarians, the American Royal is a family-oriented event and includes such non-eating activities as country-western bands, clogging, a fiddling contest, a petting zoo, and an exhibition by a local nature center.
The main event for the 25,000-plus spectators who attended this year, of course, was a walk around the grounds to admire the cooking setups and sample the fare.
A transplanted Easterner, I never imagined myself eating barbecue before noon. By Saturday, though, I was grazing on smoked ribs, chicken, and spicy barbecued beans at 10 in the morning as if they were cereal and orange juice.
As they say at the Kansas City Barbecue Society, ``It's not just for breakfast anymore.''