By the time we come down from the clouds that cling to the mountains and pull into Tryon, the rain is hot on our heels on a Friday afternoon. Not good news for the 73 competition barbecue cookers who have come from as far away as Texas and Missouri to try their hand at yet another trophy, this time at the recent Blue Ridge BBQ & Music Festival.
At the moment, they don’t seem too concerned about the rain. Mammoth RVs cover the competition grounds, and beside each is a comically large smoker, usually painted in bright, themed colors and billowing smoke. The proprietors of these mobile kitchens relax in lawn chairs, red Solo cups in hand, country music blaring on the boom box.
“When you have a Solo cup that needs a wagon, that’s how you know you’re doing it right,” says William “Bubba” Latimer of the Georgia-based Bub-Ba-Q, holding a red plastic cup that appears to contain several gallons. His restaurant has three locations across Georgia: Woodstock, Savannah and Jasper.
“But then you need a glass like this!” jokes his wife, Shannon, holding up what appears to be a small fishbowl with a stem and a straw sticking of its boozy, slushy, pink contents. Their Italian greyhound sniffs at our ankles, hoping, no doubt, for us to drop a piece of slow-cooked pork or chicken.
The field looks more like a tailgate party before a college football game than a bloodthirsty contest between some of the most competitive ‘cue cookers in the country. But a thick coat of smoke hangs over us, and the air smells like burning wood.
“Y’all hungry?” asks Latimer, emerging from the kitchen of his RV. “Try some of this chicken.” On a folding table, he sets down a paper plate piled with cuts of smoked chicken, the edges slightly blackened with carbon. It falls apart at the touch and the juices drip from it, incredible flavor and fat dribbling down my arm as I attempt to shove it in my face as gracefully and respectfully as possible.
Latimer says he and his wife, Shannon, have been doing about 40-45 barbecue competitions a year for nine years now. “In fact, this is our ninth year at this contest,” he says. “All but twice we’ve been in the top five.”
There’s a great deal of camaraderie on the competition grounds. Friends seem to reserve spots next to one another and circle their lawn chairs and coolers to relax and enjoy one another’s company.
“Don’t get me wrong,” says Latimer, “I want to beat all their asses out here, and same with them, but it’s friendly competition. It’s no holds barred tomorrow, don’t get me wrong on that, but at the end of the day, we’re all friends.”
“[Latimer] cooks so good that he walks around with a bulls eye on his back now,” says Mike Moore, who runs Old Plantation BBQ, hailing in Rome, Georgia.
“Well lately you’ve been the one with the target on his back, Mike,” responds Latimer.
Moore won two grand championships and a fifth place in competitions in Georgia and Tennessee all within the last two weeks. “I retired this month a year ago from the fire service after 34 years, and I just do this for fun now,” he says. But don’t think he’s not competitive.
“I’m not here to waste a thousand dollars on an entry fee just to get in here, party all night tonight and then not be able to get up tomorrow morning. I’ll be up at 4:30 a.m., but a lot of these younger guys will be drinking all night, partying and not be able to get it together in time, which just makes for tough barbecue,” says Moore.
Meanwhile, just across the road, there are some kids doing just that. Andrew Scott and Adam Rogers of Anderson, South Carolina’s You Bet Your Sweet Ass team say they plan to party “till about two.” When asked what time they will wake up to start tending their smokers, their response is “About three.” Despite only planning to cook pork for the event, which won’t even qualify them for an overall ranking, they remind me that this is their first year, and their ambitions seem to be more about having fun than winning, “All we want is to be sober enough to know when the whole thing is over, and not to be dead-ass last,” says Scott.
The competition includes separate categories for chicken, pork ribs, pork and brisket with additional contests for whole hog, “Anything But” (nontraditional meat, like lamb), desserts and potato salad. Competitors who score best across the board receive an overall ranking and compete for the title of grand champion.
“You’re supposed to turn in all four categories 30 minutes apart, and they judge them for taste, tenderness and appearance,” says Hudson Denny of Too Bad You’re My Cousin BBQ out of Greenville, S.C.
Denny got into the ‘cue game after an infuriating night with his gas grill. About 11 years ago, he explains, “I got pissed off at a gas grill that wouldn’t light, and so I launched it over the fence. So I decided I was never going to cook on gas again.”
He bought a small smoker, thinking he would just take it to tailgate parties, but it turns out he never made it to a game. Instead, he started competing, and in 2012 he took home a first-place trophy from the Hog Happnin’ in Shelby, N.C.
This year at Tryon, when the contests were all over and the smoke had cleared, Moore had taken sixth place overall — fourth place for his pork ribs and a ninth place for brisket. Denny and his crew took ninth in the chicken category, and Latimer’s Bub-Ba-Q was ranked ninth in pork ribs.
As for the victors, Donny Bray of Bowling Green, Ky.’s Warren County Pork Choppers took top honors overall, breaking what he considered to be a six-week slump, despite having claimed six grand championships this year. But the glow of victory is short-lived on the competition circuit. By early Sunday morning, all the tents had been packed away, the smokers — now cool — had been hitched to the backs of RVs, and the nomad barbecuers were on to the next competition.