Texas Barbecue Cookoffs

Ready, set, cook!

Don't be alarmed if you see drive across Texas and see smoke rising across the horizon. In all likelihood it's the product of Texas' prized pits: barbecue.

From the Panhandle to the Piney Woods, from Gulf beaches to the Mexican border, Texas is dotted with barbecue cook-offs. The pits usually fire up on Friday afternoons and contestants stay up through the night, checking their meats to make sure they reach smoky perfection. Judging is generally midday on Saturday, and afterwards most cook-offs invite the public to wander among the contestants and judge the barbecue for themselves. How do you judge good barbecue from a so-so product? Typically judges base their decisions on color and appearance (especially a well-defined smoke ring), texture, taste, and aroma.

In a state where you can hardly throw a sausage link without hitting a cookoff, one of the largest cookoffs around is in the small town of Taylor, located northeast of Austin. Now almost two decades old, the August cookoff draws some of the best pitmasters from around the Lone Star state. Although there are no cash prizes, up to 100 teams show up every year to compete for 27 cooking trophies plus prizes for showmanship.

"They also compete for braggin' rights," explains Michael Peschal of the International Barbecue Cookoff. Besides the prestige of being able to claim the best brisket, poultry, lamb, goat, pork ribs, seafood, or wild game, the teams come for the pure enjoyment of the competition.

"The comment that I get from cookers is that this is a fun cookoff," explains Peschal. "Some cookers only go to money cookoffs, but they say Taylor is one they will come to even though we don't give away money because it is so much fun."

Using secret spices, the pitmasters season the meats and start the slow process of smoking over their chosen wood. Many cooks stay up through the night, basting or "mopping" the meat with marinade to keep it from drying. "Some of them cook on through the night, it just depends on how they want to do it," says Peschal. "Barbecue is much better if it's done real slow."

The next morning, the teams make their final preparations and ready the meats for judging. Samples of their entries are placed in Styrofoam containers, numbered, and turned into the judges, a group with the difficult task of sampling the many entries to determine the best. Although the meat can be basted with barbecue sauce during preparation, after the meat is cut, sauce is not added for the presentation. The judges are looking at the smoky wonder of the meat itself, not the quality of the sauce.

Judging takes place on Saturday, and once the judging is completed, the real fun begins. Cooks are encouraged, although they are not required, to provide the public with a sample of their craft. In the relaxed atmosphere after the judging is completed, cooks also enjoy talking about the art of barbecueing, sometimes even sharing tips and secrets.

Every competitor's recipe varies (and some will remain secrets the pitmasters will take to the grave), but most recipes call for slow cooking over oak, hickory, pecan, or mesquite chips. The meat is rubbed with dry spices and finished off with a tomato-based sauce that can range from sweet to spicy.

One thing on which most cookoff competitors will agree is that barbecuing is not grilling. Grilling may be good, but to be labeled barbecue the meat must be cooked in a closed contraption to hold in the smoke which imparts its flavor on the chosen meat selection. Grilling is done in the open where the smoke dissipates before becoming an integral part of the meal itself. Grilling is also accomplished quickly, while barbecuing take plenty of time, sometimes an entire (24-hour) day.

Although barbecueing is serious business to these cooks, the task of barbecueing is liberally spiced with plenty of levity. At the Taylor International Cookoff and at other similar competitions throughout the state, a favorite event is the showmanship competition, with comedy skits and a lighthearted atmosphere. "Barbecue cookers do tend to put on a show, even just being normal, or as close to it as they can be," says Peschal with a laugh. Trophies are awarded for best showmanship as well as most elaborate rig, master chef, and reserve master chef.

FEBRUARY

Livestock and Rodeo Show Barbecue Cook Off, Houston. The world's largest stock show includes country and western entertainment, parades, rodeos, and a barbecue cook-off with over 100 contestants. Trophies are awarded for best chicken, ribs, brisket, and overall winner, as well as for "Most Colorful Team or Contestant," "Cleanest Contestant Area," "Most Unique Pit," and "Best Skit." Write for a copy of the four-page rules with details on mandatory insurance for each contestant or team.

MAY

Cow Camp Cookoff, San Saba Chamber of Commerce, San Saba, TX 76887. (915) 372-5141. Fire up the pit and pull out your best brisket, pork ribs, or chicken recipe to compete for more than $2,000 in prizes. San Saba, "The Pecan Capital of the World," celebrates this hill country cook-off with plenty of pecan pies followed by volleyball, horseshoes and washers, and an antique and classic car show.

AUGUST

International Barbecue Cookoff, P.O. Box 230, Taylor, TX 76574. (512) 352-6364. They come from around the state to compete here in seven categories. Over 100 teams roll into Taylor's Murphy Park and enjoy two days of pit partying. Besides the usual offerings, you'll also find teams here preparing kingfish, rabbit, venison, rattlesnake (yes, it does taste like chicken), and even raccoon (no, it's not like chicken, but more like a slightly sweet brisket). The categories include pork, beef, poultry, goat, lamp, wild game, and seafood. The grand champion qualifies for the Kansas City Barbecue Society American Royal Invitational and the Jack Daniel Invitational in Lynchburg.

National Championship Barbecue Cookoff, Meridian. This serious cook-off is by invitation only with thousands of dollars in prize money up for grabs. To enter, you must have placed in a recognized cook-off. Contestants choose from numerous categories, including pork ribs, pork other than ribs, brisket, chicken breast, pinto beans, showmanship, best rig, and best layout. The event is always the last Saturday in August. Meridian is located northeast of Waco.

SEPTEMBER

World Championship Barbecued Goat Cookoff, Brady. Usually held the Saturday before Labor Day, this cook-off brings in as many as 125 competitors to west Central Texas. Goat or cabrito is the order of the day here. After a lunch of cabrito, watch a sheep dog-handling contest, a goat pill flip off, or a tobacco spittin' contest.

OCTOBER

Czhilispiel, Flatonia. This festival located between San Antonio and Houston is one of the largest chili cook-offs in Texas with over 200 teams. Barbecue is well represented here, too. International BBQ Cookers Association (IBCA) Jackpot Championship, IBCA

Traders Village International BBQ Cookers Cook Off, Traders Village, Grand Prairie. There's something for every barbecue chef at this cook off that bills itself as the second largest in Texas. The cook-off draws over 100 competitors. The whole show takes place at Traders Village, one of the largest flea markets in Texas, located between Dallas and Fort Worth. Every weekend, 1,600 dealers fill the 106-acre park.

For More Information

For more Texas cookoffs, check out the festival listings at www.tourtexas.com

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