Backyard BBQ Blast
Amateur grillers enjoy fun of
competing despite the hard work
Many call Ribberfest contest
their favorite event of the year
(August 2018) – From master mechanic to grill master, Roger Kavanaugh does it all well, according to Julie Berry. Berry was a customer of Kavanaugh’s automotive repair shop in Versailles, Ind., in 2002 when she was working in the area. Kavanaugh’s reliability as an auto mechanic made Berry a repeat customer. Over time, she learned that he was active in the American Legion Post No. 173, enjoyed cooking and especially grilling at Legion cookouts.
That year, 2002, was the year the late Jeff Garrett and his committee kicked off the inaugural Ribberfest in Madison, Ind. Berry, a first-term Jefferson County (Ind.) county commissioner involved in the Ribberfest project, convinced Kavanaugh, the “grill master,” to enter the first Backyard Blast amateur cooking competition.
Roger Kavanaugh (third from left) poses with his Papa Rog’s cooking team at a past Backyard Blast event.
Kavanaugh said he loaded a little tent, grill and table into his truck and drove to Madison. His first reaction was, “Oh my!” The next year, he was ready with a full barbecue rig. He has continued to be a “regular” ever since.
Now in its 17th year, the Madison Ribberfest is scheduled for Friday and Saturday, Aug. 17-18. It features amateur and pro cooking events.
The amateur Madison Courier Backyard BBQ Blast takes place on Friday night along Vaughn Drive. The event is outside the festival gates, so admission is free to spectators. Competitors spend all day grilling, with the first turn-in for the judges around 6:30 p.m. More than 50 teams will compete.
Steve Thomas, chairman of the Backyard BBQ Blast, said, “It’s fun to see the camaraderie of 120-180 people in lawn chairs at the great outdoor Madison barbecue party.”
That barbecue party will start as Kavanaugh and other amateur competitors arrive at the riverfront about 5:15 a.m. Friday to be ready for set up at 6 a.m. Kavanaugh, now retired from his automotive business, laughed as he recalled that first year with his small set up. Now he rents two booths and brings his wife, Debra, and a group of veterans from the Legion. This year his group of friends will include Mike Daugherty, Tom and Rita Cassidy, and Candy Tuller. They will compete in two teams, “Papa Rog” and “The Doughboys.”
Zach Means (left) and Greg Elkins of Elkhawg Smokers pause for a photo while grilling at a previous Ribberfest contest.
The teams are busy all day. Everyone pitches in, each with his own responsibilities. First, the charcoal fires are started in the smokers. The temperature must be controlled within 10 degrees, plus or minus, all day. It is not as simple as cooking with a gas grill. (Gas and electric grills are not permitted.) Each team member does a meat. Knives and utensils must be cleaned repeatedly all day.
Tom Cassidy added, “Madison is a great town with so much going for it. We want to thank the people who put on this event. They do a super job. They are the reason we come back.”
Kavanaugh enters every category, using his secret “rub” on everything except the chicken. Last year, that special rub won the “Rub” category. Each year, he tweaks his rub and sauce recipes, always trying something new. He wants to win in every category.
“Most important,” he said, “start with good meat.”
Daugherty added, “Winning teams have to be very organized.”
The beef brisket takes 10 hours. So does the Boston pork butt, which roasts slowly at 200 degrees. In the “Other” category, “Poppa Rog” prepares buffalo rib eye steaks, which cook long, low and slow to become perfectly tender. Chicken, with his special sauce, is the quickest. After everything is cooking, Kavanaugh says, “it’s scrambled eggs and bacon time. Nothing better!”
Meanwhile, Greg Elkins and the Elkhawg Smokers BBQ team work through similar set-up, start-up and grilling tasks each year, trying for another first place trophy. Last year the Elkhawg Smokers won first place in the Chicken category, using a sweeter peach sauce. Elkins’ team includes his wife, Kim, his 30-year-old son, Matt, 26-year-old son, John, and 27-year-old friend, Zach Means.
Elkins is also a veteran, having served in the Army National Guard from 1983-89. He has spent most of his career in environmental services, working in several states. In 2006, he was transferred from Edenton, N.C., to Winchester, Ky., where he is now the Chief Operating Officer of Waste Services of the Bluegrass, a company that provides waste management for 48,000 households each day. He also serves as Magistrate and County Commissioner of Clark County, Ky.
Settling in Kentucky, the Elkins family found that barbecue sauces were sweeter and more ketchup-based than in North Carolina. They missed the vinegar-based barbecue they had come to love in that area of the south. Elkins decided it was time to start making his own sauces. He has always enjoyed cooking with his family.
When he heard about the Madison Courier Backyard BBQ Blast, he said, “I have to try it.” A natural competitor, Elkins said he looks forward to using his favorite sauces to create winning entries. His team won first place in “Brisket” two years ago.
While his family enjoys the vinegar-based sauces at home, he learned that the sweeter, ketchup-based sauces are more popular in this area. He enters all categories, using either rubs or sauces on the meats. The brisket doesn’t get any sauce, chicken uses the secret peach sauce, while the ribs have a secret sauce that includes apples. The pork features a homemade “Mama Hog” sauce that is really tangy.
The various teams share stories and food over lunch, some taking time to enjoy a cold beer. This year, Kavanaugh’s team will be wearing special T-shirts with the “Papa Rog’s” logo embroidered by Rita Cassidy.
She also does the set up for the judges, since it is critical that the presentation is just right and each item is hot and fresh. The samples must be cut in at least six pieces for judging. Prizes are awarded for the first three places in each category. The awards are presented on the Blues Bash stage about 9:30 p.m. in between the bands. There is also special award for the Best Team. Once the meat entries have been plated for the judges, the remaining meats are generously given away to the crowd.
For Kavanuagh and friends, the teamwork learned in the military and the camaraderie enjoyed by the team at the Legion carries over into the teamwork necessary to create a winning barbecue team. Kavanaugh was a member of the 1st Air Cavalry, U.S. Army helicopter division, serving in Vietnam. Tom Cassidy served in the U.S. Army Nike Missile Program in Alabama and Germany. Daugherty served in Germany in the U.S. Army Europe, working in Intelligence at the Message Center from 1966-68. Tuller served in the Air Force for 5 additional years after basic training. She worked as an aircraft electrician on F-111D fighter jets and also in base operations at Cannon Air Force Base in Curry County, N.M.
The success of the Madison Courier Backyard BBQ Blast is the result of the great support from Madison community leadership. “We love to cook, and now we’re hooked on this competition,” Elkins said.
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