Sunday, Aug. 31, started off on an unpropitious note. Several downpours rolled in from offshore during the morning, including one right at noon just as the first of the numbered Styrofoam boxes of slow-smoked chicken were being sprinted from the cooking rigs to the big judges' tent. But by one o'clock, the August sun was beating down again, and it looked like the Fourth Annual Southern National Barbecue Championship and Bluegrass Festival would come off okay.
Thirty-one professional teams came from all over the Southeast to Mt. Pleasant's Boone Hall Plantation to compete in the event sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS). Several dozen more teams from closer to home were vying for awards in the amateur and tailgating categories. What better way for Charleston to get a little taste — or, to be more accurate, a little glimpse — of the ever-expanding world of competitive barbecue cooking?
The Kansas City Barbeque Society got its start in 1985 with only 20 members and a single cook-off. According to Carolyn Wells, the KCBS's executive director, the competition circuit grew at a steady 10 to 20 percent through the 1980s and 1990s. Things really took off following the September 11 terrorist attacks, as Americans looked inward and sought ways to spend more recreational time with family and friends. The rise of the Food Network and round-the-clock barbecue specials added even more converts. Today, the KCBS is the country's largest competition barbecue sanctioning body, with over 8,000 members and some 300 events on the calendar for 2008.
In the early days things were pretty barebones: pup tents and Weber kettles and lots of beer. Today, it's RVs and high-tech barbecue rigs. Plenty of these were on display at Boone Hall.
Some, like Old Tavern Barbeque, stick with what they know best. The Summerville team cooks in a trailer with four extra-large Big Green Egg smokers installed in a custom-made wood framing. Others go more upscale, like Lotta Bull, the husband-and-wife team of Mike and Debbie Davis, who made the long trip from Marietta, Okla., with two miniature schnauzers in a custom-painted RV with a gleaming chrome-and-stainless steel Geer pit hooked to the back.
The hands-down crowd favorite, though, was the set-up of the Cameron Cookers, three South Carolina boys from the Midlands. The rig is the handiwork of Richard Nickel, who paid 50 bucks for a 1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo he found in a neighbor's front yard. He cut the car in half and turned the rear section into a barbecue pit, with charcoal laid out in the trunk and the old gas tank filled with water for steam.
Homemade contraptions win cool points but not necessarily trophies. The circuit's top teams shell out big coin for professionally-manufactured rigs that are a far cry from the kettle grills of yesteryear. Today's high-tech smokers have draft induction fans, electric thermostats, and augers that deliver a precisely-calibrated stream of wood pellets to the firebox. Such innovations have caused a lot of controversy between the barbecue purists, who maintain that burning logs and tending the fire all night is essential to the art, and the pragmatists, who like getting a good night's sleep. But, as the KCBS's Wells says, "Everything in barbecue is controversial."
The pits aren't the only things that have changed. In the early days, competitive barbecuing was a fairly transparent excuse for boozing it up all night with the boys. Today's KCBS competitors are a fun-loving lot, but they've toned it down a good bit and made the weekends more suitable for the entire family. Many of the teams out at Boone Hall had small children and grandparents along for the weekend — sort of like family camping with a little all-night barbecuing thrown in.
Like most competitions, the Southern National was paired with another draw: a bluegrass festival, though the two sides of the event didn't blend seamlessly.
The competitors' cooking areas lined either side of a long aisle along the salt marsh behind the main plantation house. The rest of the festival was laid out in a parallel aisle under the live oaks and pecan trees, with the prerequisite beer wagons, jump castles, and vendors selling elephant ears and snow cones. If it wasn't for the three concession tents selling pulled pork dinners in takeout boxes, you could hardly tell on the second aisle that there was a barbecue contest going on.
In fact, as a spectator sport barbecue leaves much to be desired. Unlike more traditional sporting events, it's hard for a casual observer to follow the competition. By the time the gates opened to the public at 10:30 a.m., the smokers had been burning for 12 hours and the critical stages of cooking were long past. Only six people — the KCBS-sanctioned judges — have a real chance to compare competitors head-to-head. Contest rules strictly prohibit any outsiders in the judging area, and the competitors' barbecue isn't generally made available to the public.
So, when the emcee took to the big stage where Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys would perform later that evening, it was sort of like following a baseball game from the box scores. A few local teams made it up on the stage, including Britton's BBQ from Johns Island, which won first place in the chicken category. But most of the prize checks went to folks from out of town.
Grand champion honors went to the Smoky Mountain Smokers, a husband and wife team from Sevierville, Tenn., who take the high-tech approach. Joe and Voncile Amore cook their barbecue in a gleaming white trailer with a pellet-fired Fast Eddy smoker. They must be doing something right. The Southern National was their fifth grand champion win this year, following up on a first place finish at Charleston's other KCBS-sanctioned competition, the Publix Prestigious Palmetto Pig Pick'n, back in March.
The competition circuit is a close-knit group, and most of the cheering for the winners came from members of the competing teams, many of whom have formed strong friendships from shared weekends on the road. They hugged and congratulated each other and compared trophies, then headed back up the slope to start packing up their rigs while the Nashville Bluegrass Band took the stage.
For a barbecue buff, competitions are a form of exquisite torture. You can admire the rigs and smell the smoke and chat with the pros, but you always leave knowing that the box dinner you bought from the concession stand is a pale shadow of the savory meat the judges enjoyed under their big white tent. But, it's still a delightful way to spend a steamy Labor Day weekend, and all signs suggest that next year's Southern National will be even bigger.