Story & Photos by Dave DeWitt
It was an fascinating concept cookoff that I could not resist attending. When our Dr. BBQ, Ray Lampe, told me that he had been invited to compete at the Best of the Best Invitational Barbecue Cookoff, I checked my Frequent Flyer miles, found that I had enough, and booked my flight to Jacksonville for the eventual drive to Douglas, Georgia. Douglas is the home of the National Barbecue News, the newspaper covering the BBQ cookoff scene and the producer of this event, along with the city of Douglas. It turned out to be a great pairing of private enterprise and city promotion.
A little BBQ Humor
Kell Phelps, publisher of National Barbecue News, told me that city of Douglas officials had approached him several years ago about partnering on a major cookoff that would be a tourist attraction for the city. It seemed that the city had lost their fairs, and the business people wanted a promotion that would attract people to the downtown section of Douglas. The event began in 2002 as a backyard event called Smokin’ on the Square, and it was held on the streets surrounding the Square, and on the Square itself. The first two events were highly successful and well-attended, but Kell had a much larger plan in mind.
Because his publication covered the cookoff circuit, he knew that not only were there several major sanctioning organizations–such as Kansas City Barbeque Society, Memphis in May, and the Florida Barbecue Association–there were a number of cookoffs calling themselves the “National Championship.” The problem was that each of these championships was governed by the very detailed and specific rules of the sanctioning organization, which favored their members, who were more familiar with the rules. But what if there were a championship that leveled the playing field, had its own rules, and was a true national championship? Thus was born The Best of the Best.
A unique Pit
Kell rounded up a bunch of sponsors to put up half the prize money of $30,000 (the rest would come from team entry fees), partnered again with the city of Douglas, set his dates for November 5 and 6, 2004, and began the process of finding the best cookoff teams. He divided the cookoff into two divisions: the usual Smokin’ on the Square cookoff, open to all teams from anywhere, and the Best of the Best, the invitational cookoff. To make sure he was inviting the best teams in the country from all sanctioning organizations, Kell contacted the leaders of all the BBQ organizations and asked for a list and contact information for their top ten teams of 2004. First he invited the top five teams from each organization, but some teams couldn’t attend, so he expanded the invitation to the next five teams. A total of 37 invitational teams showed up to compete in the Best of the Best, and 68 open teams competed in Smokin’ on the Square.
The Blindog Team Display
There were five categories in each division: Chicken, Ribs, Pork, Brisket, and Whole Hog, and each team had to cook a minimum of three categories.. Kell modified the rules to make sure the contest was fair for members of all the sanctioning organizations. For example, in the category of Brisket, only sliced brisket was judged–no chopped brisket or burnt ends.
“Overcooked brisket cannot be sliced,” Kell explained, “so only properly cooked brisket will be judged. And often there are not enough burnt ends for all the judges, so we’ve eliminated them from the competition.”
Good. That meant I would get to eat Ray’s burnt ends, the tastiest part of barbecued brisket. I arrived the day before the invitational cookoff, hung out with Ray as he prepared for smoking his meats all night, and met the organizers and a lot of the other contestants. Everyone was in good spirits and the cookoff grounds on City Square resembled a tent city, but with a very specific mission: to create the country’s best barbecue.
Ray was using two very different types of smokers: the Big Green Egg and Fast Eddy’s by Cookshack. The Big Green Egg is an old fashioned kamado-type smoker that uses charcoal and wood chips, while the Fast Eddy’s by Cookshack is a pellet-fed smoker with a very precise thermostat that sets the heat perfectly. Ray cooked the ribs on the Egg and the brisket and pork in the Fast Eddy’s. He stayed up most of the night Thursday to check the brisket and pork, catching an occasional catnap in a lawn chair in his trailer and getting awakened by the constant stream of trains through the downtown.. I went back to the Holiday Inn and sacked out, missing a lot of the gossip, rumors, and camaraderie, but would find it the next day.
Ribs on the Big Green Egg
Friday dawned crisp and cool with bright sunshine. There was tension in the air because the first turn-in was chicken at 12 noon, followed by ribs at 1, pork at 2, brisket at 3, and whole hog at 4. The awards ceremony would be held around 6:30. Adding to the excitement was a video crew from High Noon Productions that was covering the event for the Food Network.
I was fascinated by the care that Ray took in prepping his entries from the judges. The meat wasn’t just thrown into the styrofoam box. Instead, Ray used the tools of a food stylist, including tweezers, an artist’s paint brush, and an extremely sharp knife to position the meat, trim it, paint it with just the right amount of sauce, and remove any loose bits of meat. Presentation was twenty percent of the score, so he wanted to make sure his entries looked their best. And that part was challenging because of the new rules: no garnishing allowed.
Ray injects the Brisket
Assisting Ray on the Bonesmoker’s “team” was his friend Mary Ann Francis, who also cooks on the Porkitects and Chicks in Charge teams. Her interest in grilling led her to cooking indirect on a Weber. Then she became fascinated with the cookoff circuit and now she cooks or assists in about seven events a year. She was at the Best of the Best to learn the secrets of one of the best, Dr. BBQ. After Ray prepared his entries, she would carry the box to the judges, with me leading the way through the crowd so that no one bumped into her. We were avoiding the “brisket in the dirt” syndrome. Of Ray’s three entries, I liked the pork best, then the brisket, and lastly the ribs. We would soon see what the judges thought.
After the entries were turned in, I took a tour of the event. Some of the cookoff teams had displays that were very public-friendly and humorous, while others sealed theirs up and had nothing to do with the crowd. There were barbecue vendors selling plates of ribs to the public, plus displays of every conceivable barbecue apparatus, including Buster Burgin’s Drunk Chicken Roost and the “pit on a trailer” from the Tucker Cooker Company. The size of the crowd was larger on Saturday than Friday, and Kell later told me that total attendance was estimated to be 25,000. Now I’ve been a show producer for 32 years, and I’ve seen a lot of crowds, so although the attendance was strong, I don’t think it was as large as the estimate. But the people of Douglas and the surrounding area were extremely friendly and were having a great time, so that’s all that really matters.
A Barbecue Vendor
Then it was time for the awards. It took longer than usual to tally up the scores, so the announcements were delayed. Georgia Henderson, the marketing director for the city of Douglas, introduced the mayor and other dignitaries as the crowd of cookers and their entourages crowded the stage. Expectation was high. Finally, Georgia began to announce the top ten winners in each category. Ray was not mentioned in either ribs or pork, and the three of us exchanged nervous glances. But when the brisket winners were announced, Ray finished third, and there was much celebration. As it turned out, Ray finished 11th in ribs and 12th in pork, for an overall placement of 7th out of 37 teams–a major achievement, and he was a happy cooker. The overall best team was Burning Sensations. A complete list of winners can be found at www.bestofthebestbbq.com
After the event I interviewed Kell and asked him what the future held for the Best of the Best and Smokin’ on the Square. He told me that the city wanted to enlarge the event, close off more streets downtown to make room for more cookoff teams, and have 100 open teams competing in Smokin’ on the Square. Since the teams were highly complimentary about the Best of the Best format and the overall production of the event, it would be repeated with little change.
As I drove out of Douglas, headed for Jacksonville, I thought that not only was the event the Best of the Best, it was the Best of the South–showing all of the hospitality, friendliness, and great food the South is famous for.