Gladiators of the grill gather in Garnett
by Joe Bollig
GARNETT — In the beginning, there was a barbecue contest . . .
No, really. Barbecue and barbecue contests have been there from the beginning.
Well, not the very beginning, but close enough. It’s right there in the Book of Genesis (4:4), when Abel brought one of the best lambs of his flock to sacrifice to the Lord. As far as the Almighty was concerned, Abel was grand champion — not that his brother Cain, second-place sorehead and jealous vegan, agreed.
God’s favor rested once again upon the barbecuers for the Autumn Blaze Smokeoff, held Oct. 19 and 20 in Garnett.
The weather for the event, sponsored by the Garnett Knights of Columbus Council No. 1368 and sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, was clear and mild. Twenty-eight teams participated, a fantastic turnout for the event’s inaugural.
The origins of barbecue may be humble, but the world of competitive barbecue is anything but. You know you’ve entered the Big Time when you see a $300,000 motor home towing a $20,000 smoker, from 300 miles away.
In big-time barbecue, the pitmaster rules the smoker. The “Big Boy” major competitors occupy their own area, called “murderers’ row.” Barbecue groupies follow their faves from event to event. Some competitors have exotic custom equipment costing thousands of dollars, and all the barbecuers make strategic recipe modifications and jealously hold competitive secrets.
Think of it as the NASCAR of meat. “These guys are very serious,”explained Ted Uhler, grand knight of Council No. 1368 and a member of Holy Angels Parish in Garnett.
“We have a team from Stillwater, Oklahoma, the Twin Oaks Smoking Crew, driving a 40-foot motor home,” he said. “Their grill is a Horizon, one of the premier cooking grills you can buy on wheels.”
But money can’t buy you love — or a barbecue championship. Using an “Über Smoker” doesn’t guarantee you a victory. Chefs can — and have — become grand champions by cooking in something as humble as a recycled steel barrel pulled off the scrap heap.
Great barbecue, say its afficionados, is an art. The gladiators of the grills are more alchemists than scientists, each mixing their own secret recipes and utilizing guarded techniques, driven by passion and obsession.
Uhler was seduced by the passion years ago. He’s been a competitive barbecuer for years, and when he became grand knight of Council No. 1368, he didn’t have to look far for a new way to enliven his Knights council and promote worthwhile causes in Anderson County.
“We’re looking for younger guys who have other interests other than dancing and spaghetti suppers,” said Uhler, the mastermind of Autumn Blaze. “With small towns losing young people by the droves, we hope this will help them stay or return.”
“Proceeds will go to two beneficiaries,” he continued. “One is the St. Philippine Duchesne School, and the other is what we’re going to call ‘The 12 Months of Christmas.’”
The school was formed by the merger of Holy Angels School in Garnett and St. John School in Greeley. “The 12 Months of Christmas” is a community-wide effort, spearheaded by the Knights, to do repair work for the homes of the elderly or infirm in Anderson County.
Autumn Blaze was different from other competitions because it had a separate category for Knights of Columbus teams. At this contest, seven showed up: B&C Smokers, Independence Council No. 918; Trappers Smoke Stack, Emporia Council No. 727; Chuck Roast and the Beer Nuts, Garnett Council No. 1368; Heavy Smoke BBQ, Greeley Council No. 1901; Team Scipio, Scipio Council No. 2680; Hot Meat Smokers, Olathe Council No. 7909; and Bohunk BBQ, also Council No. 7909.
Mid-October was the perfect time for a barbecue contest. The “party time” amateurs had put away their grills for the winter, and only serious competitors remained. Autumn Blaze was strategically scheduled two weeks after the American Royal Barbecue, and a week before the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue Contest in Lynchburg, Tenn. Two teams that participated in Autumn Blaze also qualified for the Jack Daniel’s contest.
For a first-time event, the Autumn Blaze was very competitive. The entrants included a reserve world champion; this year’s American Royal reserve champion; a grand champion from last month’s Fayetteville, Ark., contest; and another grand champion from a recent event in Tennessee.
When barbecuers heard who else was coming, they’d just groan, said Uhler. That didn’t stop them from coming, though.
In competitive barbecue, you just don’t show up and throw your meat on the grill. No, the meat has to be inspected first. Anything precooked or seasoned is automatically disqualified.
“I know of a contest earlier this year where someone brought in some meat cooked off-site and, before the judging, they heated it up and turned it in,” said Uhler. “It’s cheating. Among barbecuers, it’s heresy.”
Teams arrived on Friday to have their meats — chicken, pork, pork ribs, and beef brisket — inspected, and then to begin their marinades and fires. The teams cooked all night, because the chicken was judged at noon; pork ribs at 12:30 p.m.; pork shoulder at 1 p.m.; and beef brisket at 1:30 p.m.
The judges used an atomic clock for absolute accuracy. If you were one minute and a second past deadline, you were out of luck.
The cooked meat was turned in and reassigned a “blind” number. When samples of six competitors had been turned in, a table captain took them to a group of six judges. The judges graded the meat according to appearance, taste and texture on a scale of one to nine. Meats were not compared. Each meat was judged on its own merits.
Autumn Blaze, like most competitive barbecue contests, was generally clean — with little trash talk and spying. The Big Boys (and, increasingly, Girls) of barbecue don’t need to spy. Honor prevailed among the champions, soaking the gathering like a goodwill marinade.
“It’s a gentleman’s contest,” said Brian Miller, a member of Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe and of the Heavy Smoke BBQ team. “The secrets are closely guarded, but since you’re competing against gentlemen, they are careful not to intrude upon your preparations. They’d just as soon beat you in their own way than to copy.”
Heavy Smoke won the Knights competition, but that’s not the only reason why they’ll be back in Garnett next year. Ultimately, it’s not about the food, but the passion.
“What gets in your blood is the fact that you take something you love and do well, and place it in front of six people to judge,” said Miller. “The rush you get when the results come out is positively unbelievable.”