Inquiring minds...

After 26 years, the question remains:
Is it the barbecue or the beer?

‘Pro’ cooking contest has
tapped a nerve with nation’s grillers


(August 2011)
Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

Who would have ever thought that standing over a hot grill and smoker all night could ever rise to the level of a professional sport? OK, maybe not a sport, but a “competition.”
The Kansas City Barbeque Society did. The organization – considered the largest of its kind in the United States – was conceived over several drinks in fall 1985 by three friends – Carolyn and Gary Wells and Rick Welch, a.k.a. the “Sir Loin” cooking team, according to the “history” link on the society’s website.
“Carolyn was Executive Vice President of Wicker Barbeque Products company and networked extensively in the barbeque market. All competed in the few existing barbeque competitions in the area – The American Royal, The Great Lenexa Barbeque Battle, and the Blue Springs Blaze Off. Members of other cooking teams were always calling wanting to know when the next event would be held. Sadly, there were none,” the story reads.

Pro cooker

Photo by Don Ward

KCBS "pro" cookers
spends lots of money
and time to travel and
participate in weekend-
long contests, but they
enjoy the camaraderie
and friendly rivalry
between teams.

“So while pondering this dilemma, the trio decided to form a club for the cookers. The only criteria for membership was that none of it be taken seriously – to do so was grounds for disqualification. What to name the organization? After semi-serious deliberation, The Kansas City Barbeque Society was deemed to fit the bill: it left a lot of room for interpretation, and there was a fair amount of B.S.!”
And so goes the start of a national obsession. The KCBS grew to become the certifier of its own judges and the sanctioning body of more than 300 barbecue cooking events across the country, culminating its own national championship event, the American Royal, held each October in Kansas City. Thanks to media attention and popularity in cooking-related festivals and all things barbecue, the KCBS has exploded since the late 1990s. Today, it boats more than 14,000 members worldwide.
The Madison Ribberfest is the oldest and largest of nine such events in Indiana and has to cut off registration at 60 teams, featuring a full field of “pro” competitors and a waiting list of judges.
OK, so going “pro” simply means paying the $250 entry fee, but nevertheless, once a team enters a KCBS-sanctioned event, taste – and pride – is on the line.
“The popularity of barbecue competitions has grown particularly because of what’s on cable TV. They come from many states, and many of our amateur teams have moved up to the pro level,” said Ribberfest’s KCBS chairman Ken Schneider. The most teams ever at Madison was 63, but organizers recently had to limit the number of entries to allow enough room for the large RVs and smokers, Schneider said.
In addition to the teams, the competition requires 77 KCBS-certified judges and table captains to determine the winner in four meat categories: chicken, pork ribs, pork and beef brisket, plus an overall Grand Champion and Reserve Champion.
But I think there is more going on here than simply camping out all night with your friends and sampling delicious morsels of beef, pork and chicken while swiggin’ down cold beer. The KCBS has tapped into the nationwide food festival craze that is evident not only at community festivals such as the Madison Ribberfest, but viewed on national TV shows such as MasterChef, Hell’s Kitchen and Top Chef. Not to mention the dozens of other cooking shows on the Food Channel and Bravo. Perhaps it is not surprising then that food-themed festivals are among the fastest growing trends in U.S. tourism today.


The KCBS has indeed struck gold by tapping into the love of partying with a purpose.
I have met several pro cooking teams from around the Midwest at the Madison Ribberfest over the past nine years. And as this 10th annual event approaches Aug. 19-20, I continue to contemplate the answer to one simple question: Is it the barbecue or the beer?
Since most teams are comprised predominantly of men drinking beer all night long while they huddle around a small fire – somewhat like their club-swinging, loin-cloth wearing prehistoric ancestors might have done at one time in this Ohio River Valley, I have to ponder the real goal here? (After all, a guy’s gotta eat!)
But over time, I have learned that it is not all just about “meet and eat.” Many teams have restaurants or catering businesses back home. Some sell their own specially created sauces. Others quit their “real jobs” and open their own barbecue businesses as a result of their cooking success on tour.
Guess a guy’s gotta have a hobby.
Still, I have to wonder – after seeing 60 teams of “competitors” drive their air-conditioned RVs and cookers for miles to get here from all over the Midwest and South, only to sit out all night long on the riverbank cooking meat and drinking beer – if it the latter that resulted in the former, since drinking beer is not so much fun without some great food to go with it. Especially since the KCBS itself was started by a group of friends sitting around one night having drinks back in Kansas City.
Maybe they should have called it the Kansas City Barbeque and Beer Drinking Society? It has a nice ring to it and I think it more precisely captures the moment.
But that’s a lot of words to put on a T-shirt.

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email: info@RoundAbout.bz.


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