Dave Cathey is the food editor of The Oklahoman and author of Historic Restaurants of Oklahoma City (2016). Follow him on Twitter @thefooddood.
Historically speaking, the barbecue world has evolved the same way a 12-pound bovine chest muscle turns into smoked brisket—low and slow.
Recently, though, the rise of competition BBQ—with its bulging purses and national television coverage—has turned the tradition into a spectacle, causing many purists to wonder whether pitmasters are following the right muse. On his “Barbecue with Franklin” show that aired on PBS last summer, Aaron Franklin wanted to see how his style would hold up in competitive play. Finishing firmly in the middle of the field, Franklin recognized the stark differences from his world, joking that it was more like NASCAR for barbecue.
Turns out that comparison might fit on more than one level. “Smithfield Foods sponsors two organizations,” Kansas City barbecue legend Ardie Davis said in a phone interview. “NASCAR and Kansas City BBQ Society.”
But a certain contingent fears the circuit is veering faster into a different highly rated “sport,” the WWE, and that the competitive circuit is losing its status as a standard-bearer for fellowship and a leader in barbecue innovation.
“It seems sad to me that the most famous barbecue man in America [Myron Mixon] is trying to make a virtue out of beating up the other kids and taking their lunch money,” Robb Walsh wrote in his article “7 Dirty Truths About Barbecue.” Walsh worries that the focus on making good television, by way of competition ‘cue, is making a mockery of its historic place in American cuisine and its roots as a community cornerstone. The writer—along with a few industry insiders—believe a few course corrections might do the competitive barbecue some good.
Once equal parts pastoral fellowship and gustatory orgy, barbecues sprang from rural communities as a hub for human connection—an evolution of the weekend picnic or Sunday church potluck, and precursor to the pancake supper. Then one day somebody must have asked who made the best pork ribs, and the Sunday barbecue went the way of the state-fair pie contest. But pitmasters were a different breed from pie-bakers, and soon a blue ribbon was no longer enough. Neither was the county fair.
Photo: Flickr/Ryan Dickey
In 1985, Kansas City barbecue competitors Carolyn and Gary Wells and Rick “Sir Loin” Welch got just deep enough in their libations to conceive a club for barbecue’s hardest cases. They called it the Kansas City Barbecue Society. Taking the club too seriously was grounds for membership disqualification. By 1993, KCBS grew from three to 1,400. Since the society’s birth, the mullet has come and gone, the Internet was born, and the competitive barbecue circuit eventually trampled over that original KCBS directive to keep your ego in check. In 1989, the Jack Daniel’s Barbecue World Championship began. Today, KCBS membership is north of 20,000 worldwide with more than 450 sanctioned events across the country. The Jack just crowned its 27th Grand Champion in October, handing out a top prize of $10,000.
Winning is now #winning, and Davis worries the original mission “good food and fun bringing people together” has fallen wayside in the chase for dollar signs. “Media-hungry contestants and bravado are a part of it now,” Davis said. “The entertainment aspect seems to feed the behavior.”
But does competitive barbecue have anything to offer other than financial progress and promotion?
Last August, for a piece about Franklin Barbecue for The Oklahoman, I interviewed pitmaster Aaron Franklin in Austin, TX. Channeling Buddy Holly and Bill Nye the Science Guy, Franklin has built a reputation for brisket bordering on sacred using traditional technique, loads of data, and scientific methodology. After the formal part of the interview, Franklin asked me about the lack of quality barbecue restaurants in Oklahoma City, which I couldn’t explain, but mentioned the Sooner state was home to five Jack Daniels Grand Champions. Franklin then mentioned how he occasionally checks up on competitions to see if there any innovations worth knowing.
“He knows everything that’s going on inside his cooker…because he has done his homework,” says circuit regular David Bouska of Butcher BBQ in Chandler, Oklahoma, whose team has 70 Grand Champion and Reserve Grand Champion finishes.
Franklin’s study led him to Creekstone Farms in Ark City, Kansas, for beef—just like a large contingent of the competitive-barbecue community. Franklin uses USDA prime-grade briskets, which first became popular on the circuit. But he stops short of its latest darling, Wagyu-style beef. “I don’t like Wagyu for what I do,” he told me in August. “Doesn’t have the right flavor.”
Bouska said if the circuit has given anything back to the casual cook or restaurant pitmaster, it’s the scientific methodology he and Franklin use. “I love what Aaron Franklin is doing. He’s learned in his business what we’ve learned on the circuit, science always wins.”
Other innovations sprang forth from these gatherings too. Legendary competitor Joe Davidson’s Oklahoma Joe smokers became standard backyard equipment in the Midwest, South, and Southwest once he went into business with New Braunfels Smoker Co. back in the 1990s.
Photo: Oklahoma Barbecue Society
But the idea of competition circuit as barbecue’s de facto test kitchen is losing relevance says Walsh. “Competitions once were considered a kind of repository for barbecue knowledge and technique.”
The environment has become less hospitable according to people like Paul Schatte, vice president of Head Country Inc. in Oklahoma and Grand Champion of The Jack in 1994. He remembers when it offered a more free flow of ideas. “Most teams were willing to tell their trade secrets in the early days,” he says. “I see a lot of enclosed trailers I didn’t see before now.” He admits some of the enclosures protect a cook from the elements, but he also knows it’s partly security. “It’s gotten more expensive for competitors. They have a lot more on the line, so they might not be as quick to share a tip like they used to.”
Bouska believes growth of barbecue as a sport is inevitable, so the time is now to protect the interests of those who want to compete in their county barbecue cook-off every year. “It’s not fair to regular folks like that to have to compete against guys like us who do this 30 to 35 times a year. What’s important to us is the money and the points, so we’re going to approach it differently. We don’t want to eliminate folks who just want to come out, drink some beer, smoke a brisket and compete against their friends.” That’s why Bouska would like to see a tiered system divided into pro and amateur circuits, which would allow growth in the industry without sacrificing growth in participation.
Money might be derailing the balance of competitors, but Walsh is concerned barbecue’s cultural significance could be buried in a pile of empty injection syringes and bloody Wagyu wrappers. “I was present for a ‘Legends of Barbecue’ shoot and watched a guy pumping straight-up potassium phosphate into meat,” Walsh explained. “I asked him about it and he said, ‘I don’t have to eat it.’ When I asked him why he did it he said, ‘Well, that’s what’s winning.’”
Bouska admitted the race to produce big, bold single bites is pervasive. “You have to remember, the judges are gonna take one, maybe two, bites of what I turn in,” he explained. “So I’ve got to offer explosive flavors.” Davis shares a concern over the direction of judging, calling it the “candification” of barbecue.
Davis hopes KCBS can better balance its attention between the circuit and educating its enormous casual fan base to ensure the future of barbecue reflects not only its top competitors, but its humble community roots. “Barbecue as a sport is in its teenage years,” he said. “There are definitely improvements that can be made, but interest in barbecue will grow with or without it. There are more than 60 million people who make barbecue in their backyards.”