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Precision Grill Teams

The competition is heated at the Great Lenexa Barbecue Battle. Even the best efforts can go up in smoke -- and raw rookies can succeed.

July 04, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

LENEXA, Kan. — In a cloud of apple-wood smoke, the air swirling with the smells of top-secret spice mixtures, Donna McClure was running out of time and patience. Finally, she pointed a spray bottle at her minions and leapt the line between urgent request and angry order.

"I need a rib," she snarled. "Get me a rib -- now!"

"Runners" were already hustling the barbecued pork ribs of her competitors to the judges. One of McClure's teammates rushed forward and laid a slab of ribs onto a square of foil. She gave it a spritz from the spray bottle. Then she cried out in frustration.

"The foil is coming out of the box crooked. My ribs are wrapped crooked. Arghhh. Take it anyway. Go!"

The Great Lenexa Barbecue Battle is precisely what the name implies, a meat war, prosecuted last weekend by 178 teams with names such as Pig Bang Theory, Squeal of Approval and McClure's PDT, or Pretty Damn Tasty.

Lenexa is an early, important skirmish in the greater competitive barbecue conflict, one of the first events in an annual summer-long drive to the world championship contests. The prize money, $2,000 to the grand champion, is important here, though often secondary to oven-mitt trophies and ribbons and far behind the ultimate goal of high scores that will bring invitations to the two most prestigious events.

Sometimes fun sneaks in among the heaps of slaughtered hogs and pseudo-scientific experiments such as the effectiveness of Rolling Rock beer as a palatable moisturizer for alligator meat. Fun is allowed among serious competitors, so long as it doesn't get in the way.

"We're going to Plan B," McClure, 64, PDT's head chef, called when a smoker began to lose heat in the crucial final minutes of her brisket work. "We got problems, we got storm clouds. Move 'em to the other smoker. Let's go."

Slaves in the South began to develop the current notion of barbecuing when, having only the grisliest scraps of meat, they learned to slowly tenderize them over coal-filled pits. Smokehouses followed, then barrels and finally modern grills.

Somewhere along the line, apron-clad men with spatulas began expressing their masculinity by proclaiming their burgers superior to their neighbor's. This led first to informal beer-fueled grill-offs and, in the late 1970s, the first large, organized contest.

Since then, competitive barbecuing has grown to include tens of thousands of chefs and grill-minders, usually in teams of six to 10, thousands of certified judges, hundreds of events, dozens of associations and a handful of newsletters such as the Kansas City Barbecue Society's Bullsheet, the July issue of which contains a think piece titled "Meat Ethics, Politics and Economics."

Although there are numerous barbecue championships, the two considered most prestigious by KCBS -- the largest sanctioning body -- are the American Royal, held in Kansas City, Mo., and the Jack Daniels World Championships, held in Lynchburg, Tenn. Both take place in the fall and offer as much as $10,000 to the grand champion. (The pork-only Memphis in May event also is a highlight.)

To compete for the world championships, a team must win either a sanctioned contest or a state championship. Lenexa, this year, was both.

As the sport, as some call it, has grown, enterprising welders have taken to building $20,000 custom smokers, complete with baffles, convection systems and delicate thermometers. Some full-kitchen mobile barbecue trailers go for $200,000.

Dedicated contestants such as McClure, a part-time caterer from Lenexa in her 22nd year of competition, spend years developing their spice rubs, deciding whether pecan or black-cherry wood smoke is best for pork shoulder, if a brush of lemon-lime Gatorade might lift their quail breast into the finals. Since judges' palates differ from region to region, traveling contestants must alter their recipes and grilling process, typically going for heavier mesquite-smoke in Texas, vinegar-based sauces in the Carolinas, sweet tomatoes and often fruitwoods for Kansas City-style barbecue.

'Fat Equals Flavor'

"The beauty of competitive barbecue is you take a crummy piece of meat and turn it into art," said Carolyn Wells of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, wearing a necklace of dried, treated pork ribs.

Of course, Wells noted, serious competitors avoid truly crummy meat. They buy hogs specially fed for maximum fat content -- "fat equals flavor" being a culinary maxim. They buddy up to the best meat-cutters in town. One contestant at a recent competition spent hundreds of dollars on a brisket of Kobe beef, and still didn't win.

"OK, chicken's ready," McClure, the 1999 Lenexa grand champion and holder of dozens of other awards, said as she slid a final sprig of homegrown parsley between the six golden legs.

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