I am on an eternal quest for the next great smoke house, tracking barbecue's many variations across a scattered landscape of small restaurants handed the burden of preserving culinary history.
The United States of Barbecue, however, represents more than just billows of smoke rising from a brick-and-mortar joint. My first trip to Memphis in May taught me that lesson, exposing me to the world of barbecue events, a vast expanse of competitions and festivals rooted in the social aspects of this gastronomic tradition.
Media coverage tends to focus on the competitive barbecue circuit, where cash prizes and championship narratives sometimes steal the spotlight from the spirit of community that underscores every good cookout. In fact, the sanctioning of competition barbecue, undertaken most prominently by the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS), is a recent development in the history of such gatherings, which—as noted in the diary of George Washington—date back to the birth of our barbecue nation and beyond.
The competitive circuit was established not only so pimasters could gather on a smoking battlefield, but also to build new financial and social foundations for the growing ranks of non-competitive barbecue lovers in the United States (and abroad). Along with KCBS, the Memphis Barbecue Network (MBN) and numerous other networks promote barbecue events as the intersection of food, friends, family and fun in the key of Americana.
What Makes a Barbecue Event?
An entire story can be written on the differences between event-barbecue, business-barbecue, and backyard-barbecue. While these three events overlap quite a bit, there are fundamental distinctions in the food and the framing of a competition.
The most obvious distinction is the contest itself. Each barbecue contest follows different rules, typically adhering to the standards of a sanctioning network. Some contests require competitors to cook multiple types of meat to win. Others allow them to focus on one dish. The winners of sanctioned contests often receive the privilege of competing in a broader invitational, and state championships*, and other prestigious wins grant the opportunity to cook in one of the country's world-class competitions.
Another distinction of barbecue events, particularly the biggest barbecues, is the party. I grew into barbecue at one end of its historic trail—Oakland, California—where the best barbecue was found on Formica tables and diner countertops. Five years later, I found myself downing whiskey, beer and crayfish beside a three-story tower of pork ribs and gyrating college students in Memphis. This boisterous scene couldn't be further removed from what I once thought were the defining elements of a barbecue joint. Parties careen into the night, sponsors flood the grounds with promotions and swag, entertainment for all ages abounds, and the spirit of celebration—culinary and otherwise—lingers loudly in the air. This experience, too, has its historic roots.
The party, of course, is an outgrowth of event-barbecue's proudest distinction: the community. Most pit cooks will tell you that competitions are fun not because they're sport, but because they're the best way to spend a weekend with friends. Most barbecue events want nothing more than to be a bigger and better magnet for the craft, and the rate at which events are growing throughout the United States shows they're making it happen.
* Some states have multiple championships, so very few state championships actually determine the definitive title.
How to Make the Most of a Barbecue Competition
Ironically, barbecue events, especially barbecue competitions, are not always the best place to sample great barbecue. Health regulations usually ban competing teams from serving free samples to the public, preventing many spectators from ever trying award-winning barbecue. Though competing teams are constantly cooking for themselves and for their friends, the rules usually mandate that spectators can't sample.
Even more ironically, this restriction creates an incentive for spectators to work their way into the competition community. While I'm still new to the world of barbecue events, I've noticed that hospitality is one of their defining elements. If you're truly interested in the teams' barbecue, the odds that you will befriend and break brisket with at least one of them are in your favor. And If you really want to get behind the scenes, you can always volunteer.
Many competitions have a setup day, so show up the before the actual competition begins, when teams are kicking back, holding reunions and cooking for friends.
Check things out. Ask questions. Share stories. Be kind and be honest, and your reward may be a bite behind the blind box.
Where to Find Barbecue Events
Barbecue season begins as soon as snowfall begins to melt, kicks into high gear at Memphis in May, and peaks in October, when The American Royal Barbecue draws teams from all over the country in the world's biggest barbecue contest. With KCBS-sanctioned events and non-competition events keeping the coals lit through November, there's much more to eat even after you've put your backyard grill away.
The quickest way to find out when an event is going down near you is to visit the web site of a barbecue network, most of which are regional:
Alaska BBQ Association - Alaska
California BBQ Association - California
Georgia Barbecue Association - Georgia
Florida Bar-B-Que Association - Florida
Illinois BBQ Society - Illinois
Iowa Barbeque Soeciety - Iowa
North Carolina Barbeque Society - North Carolina
South Carolina Barbeque Association - South Carolina
Minnesota Barbeque Society - Minnesota
New England Barbecue Society - New England
Mid Atlantic Barbecue Association
Pacific Northwest BBQ Association - Northwest
Lone Star Barbecue Society - Texas
Central Texas Barbecue Association - Texas
Texas Guld Coast BBQ Cookers Association - Texas
Utah BBQ Association - Utah
Wisonsin BBQ Society - Wisconsin
On a broader level, the National Barbecue News, an excellent print and online resource for all news barbecue, offers an extensive calendar of events which is organized by date and sanctioning body. Their calendar includes a number of non-sanctioned events and even a list of barbecue cooking schools for those who would like to earn the mantle of pit cook in their free time.
In addition to having its own listing of barbecue organizations, BBQ-festivals.com offers a general listing of barbecue competitions and festivals, categorized by state.
Some of Barbecue's Public Highlights
Hundreds of events have carved niches for themselves on the competitive circuit and in the local culture of American barbecue. The following notables represent only a portion of the ground covered by the most famous of these gatherings.
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo
World's Championship Bar-B-Que Contest
February - Houston, Texas
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is home to the World's Championship Bar-b-que Contest, one of the country's four "world championships" (the others are Memphis in May, the American Royal and the Jack Daniel's World Championship). While the barbecue invites upwards of 250 top-tier teams to compete over three days, the entire event lasts for 20 days, attracting over two million participants in 2010.
Next to the world's biggest livestock exhibition, a massive rodeo, a full-fledged carnival, a series of cavalcades (just try using that word outside of a rodeo or a Decemberists song) and performances by pop radio giants, a barbecue might seem quaint. The World's Championship Bar-b-que Contest, however, has been called "the Mardi Gras of BBQ," with many of the sponsored tents housing open bars and parties of legend. Getting into these parties is quite a challenge, so if you're looking to sauce it up with the best of 'em, try sponsoring a tent of your own.
Grillin on the Bay
March/April - Brooklyn, New York
A relative newcomer to the scene, Grillin' on the Bay is New York's only sanctioned barbecue competition. It's also a quick cook-off, allowing teams one day to come up with the best pork ribs, chicken and fish they can.
As the name suggests, the focus here is on grilling. Smoke is a key element, but the hardcore traditions of long haul-barbecue are less important than the creative use of cookout constraints. A wide variety of influences find their way into the competition, especially in the "Chef's Choice" contest, where teams can cook pretty much anything that doesn't fit one of the other official categories.
Add to this a "quickfire challenge," a chili cook-off, and some of the best cooks in New York, and you've got a bold opening bang for barbecue season in Brooklyn.
The International Bar-B-Q Festival
May - Owensboro, Kentucky
Most barbecue enthusiasts are aware that there are more than a few barbecue "capitals" in the United States. Some would be surprised to know that one of the most prominent capitals is Owensboro, where the International Bar-B-Q Festival has been making a name for Kentucky barbecue since 1979. Now attracting over 80,000 visitors in one weekend, the festival is host to a classic car show, three "Miss Bar-B-Q" pageants and a full evening of live music.
The heart of the it is the Governor's Cup barbecue contest, in which the regional specialties of mutton barbecue and burgoo are scored alongside chicken to determine the year's championship team. Most prominent on the festival's website is the "Mutton Glutton" pass, a $50 non-stop eating ticket that's, most ironically, not for the sheepish.
Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest
May - Memphis, Tennessee
A titan of barbecues, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest at Memphis in May is the world's largest pork barbecue competition in the world.
It's also the biggest MBN-style event in existence, drawing 250 teams, some of whom spend over $15,000 on cooking, competition, and several metric tons of light beer. Due to several factors—including the use of a whole hog category, a two-pronged judging system in which each team's barbecue is judged on-site as well as anonymously, and a tradition of outrageous booths—the cost of competing in Memphis in May is much higher than the average $1,000 it takes to throw down in a typical MBN contest.
The combination of showmanship, scale, and classic 'cue is a winner. Even if you don't manage to sneak into one of the tents for a taste of the competition, you can while away an entire afternoon by simply walking up and down the bank of the Mississippi and taking in the energy of the day.
The Big Apple BBQ Block Party
June - New York, New York
New York may not have its own style of barbecue, but it does have its own style. It also has one of the country's best barbecue events: the Block Party, where over 100,000 New Yorkers descend upon Madison Square Park every June for a taste of the real deal from the city and afar.
This two-day marathon of top-notch barbecue is trucked in and served by an all-star cast of pit masters from around the country. Shifting the lineup from year to year, NYC restaurateur Danny Meyer's team presents a rotation of barbecue styles. The result is a lovingly curated celebration of barbecue's regional nature.
Fancy Farm Picnic
August - Fancy Farm, Kentucky
Taking barbecue's historic association with the exposition of Southern politics to an extreme, Kentucky's Fancy Farm Picnic is known less for its mutton than for its political beef. Staged as a rowdy, no-holds-barred rally where audience members boo rival candidates through every stump speech, Fancy Farm is "an essential stop for anyone seeking statewide office in Kentucky."
It's also an official Guinness World Record holder for world's largest picnic. That title, earned in 1982, is honored still. This year, something like 18,739 pounds of barbecue (approximately 1.25 pounds of barbecue per person) were smoked.
XIT Rodeo and Reunion
August - Dalhart, Texas
The world's largest free barbecue can be found in the northwest corner of Texas, where Dalhart has been conducting grand rodeo for 74 years. As part of the XIT, which celebrates one of the biggest ranches in American history, 9,000 pounds of beef barbecue are buried in the earth, to be smoked for 24 hours and served to thousands in a juicy blaze of Western ceremony.
In Smokestack Lightning, one the finest barbecue books in print, author Lolis Eric Elie visits the XIT to study the mythic bond between barbecue and cowboy culture. Upon discovering that cowboys probably didn't enjoy pit-smoked meats on a regular basis, he wonders if this connection "has been composed in the modern era to fit our vision of an idealized past...or, perhaps more to the point, cultural history has been rewritten so as the make it readily more marketable."
Murphysboro Barbecue Cook-Off
September 23 - 25, 2010 - Murphysboro, Illinois
Proudly promoted as "a true slice of Americana," the Murphysboro Cook-Off, also known as Praise the Lard, draws teams and judges from 14 states to take part in a barbecue that is as local as it is national. The competition and festivals' reputation has everything to do with its founder: Mike Mills, a man who's been practicing world-class barbecue for decades and is known throughout the land as "The Legend."
Under the wing of the Mills family, which showcases a broad love for the craft in the excellent (and oft-cited by Serious Eats staff) book Peace, Love and Barbecue, the Murphysboro Cook-Off was the first competition to be dual-sanctioned by the KCBS and MBN. In creating crossover conditions between Kansas City and Memphis competition styles, Praise the Lard has strengthened both traditions.
It has also created a singular challenge in the barbecue world: The Murphysboro Cook-Off is still the only competition that runs both KCBS and MBN contests simultaneously, and going for both titles in one shot requires a masterful sense of timing.
Big Aspen BBQ Block Party
August 28 - 29, 2010 - Aspen, Colorado
Aspen becomes part of barbecue country this year with its own BBQ Block Party, an offshoot of Danny Meyer's New York juggernaut that debuts in just a few days.
Operating at about half the scale of its predecessor, this festival should still pack a porky punch for barbecue lovers. In addition to Mike Mills, heavyweight Ed Mitchell of The Pit, Drew Robinson of Jim n Nick's, and Salt Lick owner Scott Roberts will join New York's Kenny Callaghan and several Colorado chefs in bringing barbecue to the Colorado hills.
Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off
September 1 - 6, 2010 - Sparks, Nevada
Those who will never shake their gut association of barbecue with a rack of ribs have much to look forward to in September, when Sparks hosts a six-day festival devoted to the iconic rib.
It is by all accounts an epic undertaking: 24 competing teams sell rack upon rack of ribs to the public. The World Rib Eating Championship doles out $5,000 in gluttonous prize money, and $900 reservations for three-day buffet tables in the V.I.P. "Rib Village" sell like barbecue hotcakes.*
* To my knowledge, barbecue hotcakes do not exist. If you are reading this, you are more than welcome to invent them, or refute this claim.
The American Royal Barbecue
September 30 - October 3 - Kansas City, Missouri
When it comes to competition, the American Royal is as serious as it gets. Like many of the events covered in this guide, the barbecue contest is only one part of a greater opus; in the case of this Kansas City classic, almost 40 events dot the calendar from April through November.
The American Royal season includes livestock shows, parades, races, auctions, rodeos, a Texas hold 'em tournament and an event called the Unbelievable Horse Happening. I've always hoped that someone would hear my plea for an M. Night Shyamalan buddy flick starring Mark Wahlberg and Mr. Ed; this might as close as the universe ever gets.
Standing at the peak of the Royal is the country's biggest barbecue contest, accepting over 450 teams in open competition and holding a separate invitational for those who have already won grand champion titles at sanctioned state championships. While I've heard many a grumbling that the actual rankings are less a reflection of skill than of judges' moods and luck, there's no doubt that the Invitational competition attracts high-caliber cooks for one hell of a cookout.
"Seventeen acres, and there's nowhere there's not a team," states KCBS founder and executive director Carolyn Wells, who refers to the American Royal as the largest backyard barbecue in the world."It is a destination."
North Carolina Barbecue Society
BBQ Boot Camp & Judging Class
October 1 - 2, 2010 - Wilmington, North Carolina
NCBS President Jim Early has apparently trademarked the phrase "Cradle of Cue" for North Carolina—that's how serious this state is about 'cue. North Carolina has protected this legacy not only by passing family recipes from generation to generation but also by passing barbecue skills to friends and employees, who have then gone on to open their own smokehouses and carry on the craft in their own names.
Channeling this spirit, the NCBS will run its third annual "barbecue boot camp" at the start of October. For $395 (just $30 for teens aged 15 to 18), you can spend two days taking a crash course in the classical arts of North Carolina 'cue. Featured classes: whole hog, pork shoulder, pork ribs, beef brisket, beef tenderloin, beef rib, whole salmon, barbecue sauce, side dishes and NCBS judges' certification. You'll have to ask your college counselor if Barbecue 101 is a valid addition to your transfer credits.
Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational
October 22 - 23, 2010 - Lynchburg, Tennessee
Presenting itself as the most prestigious competition in the barbecue world, the Jack invites over 80 KCBS winners, including international competitors—to Lynchburg to cook pork, beef, chicken, ribs, sauce, dessert and one "cook's choice" dish. Grand champion winners at Memphis in May, the American Royal Open and Houston's World's Championship Bar-B-Que receive automatic invitations to the Jack, giving this season-closing contest the title, "tournament of champions."
Unlike the Jack Daniel's Distillery tour, the Jack Daniel's Barbecue encourages visitors to consume its product on the premises (Lynchburg is in a dry district; the sale of alcohol is forbidden). We've heard that sampling rules at The Jack are a bit more relaxed than at the Royal and Memphis in May, with many teams offering people small tastes of what they're cooking.
The Lexington Barbecue Festival
October 23, 2010 - Lexington, North Carolina
Lexington, the epicenter of western North Carolina, holds its own swine street fair at the end of October. It has a distinctly local feel, filling the streets with just as much funnel cake as barbecue. In lieu of a contest, almost a dozen local barbecue joints contribute pulled pork shoulder sandwiches to be sold for a few bucks a pop at massive barbecue stations throughout the festival grounds.
Unfortunately, the sandwiches are all mixed together before being served, so it's difficult to tell what you're actually eating. The restaurants' names are printed on a sponsor-like banner above the counter, unifying competitors under the regional style. While the result is a less-than-stellar eating experience, it's a nice change of pace from the mess of trying to figure out who's 'cue is "best."
Plus, after a day reveling in the festival's lumberjack competition, billy goat race and enormous, hog-themed sand castle, you can easily drive over to one of the area's many highly rated smoke houses for some of the best barbecue you will ever taste.
Big Pig Jig
November 5 - 6, 2010 - Vienna, Georgia
Vienna's Big Pig Jig has roots in the most classic of barbecue events: the pig pickin'. Started in 1982 as a strictly whole hog contest, this nationally renowned festival now hosts a complete MBN-sanctioned contest along with a host of other events, including a hog show, battle of the bands, golf tournament and scholarship quiz bowl.
Dubbed "BBQ City USA," the Big Pig Jig is similar to Memphis in May in its literal construction of a barbecue town. At the center, the whole hog, over a pit of coals, is still the fundamental icon of southern barbecue.
All Summer Long - Queens, New York
Throughout grilling season, Serious Eats' own grilling columnist, Josh Bousel, happens to host a regular barbecue in Queens. Christened "the Meatwave" and fueled by the powers of a Weber bullet and a whole lotta love, this event is a showcase of skill and passion for the smoky arts.
The best part? You're invited! If you are one of Bousel's readers, check out these instructions on how to obtain an invitation to the Meatwave's next installment.
The Great American BBQ Tour
(Demonstrations Take Place Cross-Country)
Promotional tours are no rarity in this country, and the promotional elements built into many barbecue events will allow any festivalgoer to bring home a bit of wisdom. The KCBS Barbecue Tour, however, brings a veteran couple of competition 'cue to events all over the country, promoting the KCBS network and staging free grilling demonstrations for the hungry masses.
Martha Stewart it certainly ain't, but if you make it one of their tour stops, tour leaders Mike and Chris Peters will be happy to be the first new friends you make at the great barbecue.
Have you been to any of these events? Do you know of a local or regional barbecue that Serious Eaters should check out?
Share your recommendations, insights and tips in the comments section—the Serious Eats Barbecue Bureau (SEBB!) wants to know. With enough feedback, we can turn this meager roundup into a real barbecue resource.
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.