Barbecue competitions are not for the faint of heart. Picture giant parking lots, multiple city blocks, or even a couple acres of open fields—all packed with grills, pits, and smoke rising into the sky like a slow-burning wild fire.
Cook-offs all across the country feature their own regional rules, specialities, and focus. Competitions take days, and some even months. The stakes are high, the heat is hot, and the competition is both fierce and friendly. The pit masters have two goals in mind: make the best barbecue out there and have the best time doing it.
Contestants take every barbecued bite seriously. The prize is usually cash (it can be over $100,000 in multi-month competitions), and some festivals even run as charity events. Judges taste each morsel blindly to ensure fair competition, and every piece of meat is judged on its appearance, taste, and texture.
Each region has it’s own rules and style, and they follow their styles with religious fervor. Contestants spend months, or even years, perfecting their recipes and timing. There’s anything from whole roasted hog to baked bean competitions.
The BBQ States
While barbecue culture has spread across practically every corner of the United States, there are a few tried and true regions where barbecue culture is strongest. Here are some of the more widely known states and their biggest competitions:
New Jersey – NJ State Barbecue Championship
Missouri: American Royal World Series & The International Barbecue Festival
Texas: Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo
Tennessee: Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue & Memphis in May’s World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest
New York: Beer, Bourbon, & BBQ Festival
Kentucky: The International Bar-B-Q-Festival
North Carolina: The Lexington Barbecue Festival
A Team and a Community
Smoking and barbecuing require a team—a group of committed cooks who are willing to spend some time perfecting their recipes and lose a little sleep. Kindling flames overnight requires some long-standing attention and so it’s often a family affair.
Neighboring pit masters and families often get to know each other during the BBQ competitions. A strong community forms after many years of sharing tools, tips, and the occasional glass of whiskey.
Barbecue competitions are growing in popularity and contestants now have to work harder and more creatively to stand out in the crowds. But amongst the intense competition, they’re sure to hold onto the simple joys of making good barbecue.