Friday, January 23, 2015

Heading to Florida for Barbecue

Trophies await the successful cooking teams.

Where in a new year should the first barbecue contest be? Why not Florida? When I was considering the early contests of the year, the idea of being in Florida seemed like a winner. Regardless of the temperatures elsewhere, the climate in January in Florida usually is better. Although great-tasting barbecue is the best reason to be a judge in a contest, I confess that temperatures in January are a major consideration.

The best vehicle belongs to Swinos Competition BBQ Team, which also shows off its trophies.

For Christmas, I wrapped my wife a map of Florida. “What does this mean?” she asked as she opened it. “Barbecue, of course,” was my answer. The location was Lakeland, home of a barbecue competition since 1997. The Lakeland Pigfest is unusual in many respects – long-standing tradition of the event, the high number of cooking teams that compete (which also requires a lot of judges), and the organizers’ ability to raise money for charity.

Tigertown in Lakeland is the home of the Pigfest.

What began as a small festival has grown into a major regional event attended by more than 30,000. The crowd keeps growing each year in part because the pigfest has no admission charge (only a parking fee) and cooking teams are encouraged to sell their barbecue at the event. However, cash sales are not permitted. Instead Pig Bucks are the tender for the day. When the festival ends, the organizers keep 20 percent for charities and return the other 80 percent to the cooking teams.

Pig Bucks are the currency to buy anything at the festival,

So many cooking teams apply, the festival now has two divisions: “pro” for very competitive teams and early registrants, and “backyard” for all others. Because the number of teams in the pro division is limited, the backyard contest includes many excellent teams as well as local teams who are improving their competitive skills. Because both divisions follow the rules of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, each one is a sanctioned event.

More than 30,000 attend the Lakeland Pigfest.

At the 19th annual pigfest that I attended, more than 170 cooking teams turned in their best barbecue in the four KCBS-sanctioned categories: chicken, pork ribs, pork, and beef brisket. I was one of the judges for the backyard contest. At the table where I was assigned, other judges have been organizers of events in other states, long-term master judges who have been at more than 100 events, and novices who were judging for the first time.

Judges relax in Hanger #2 of Tigertown before cooking teams turn in their first entries.

Being at the Lakeland Pigfest showed me how a community can successfully use a barbecue contest to benefit its area. The festival has given more than $1 million to local charities, and its “pro” winner is the Florida state champion. In addition to the contests for adult cooking teams, a special competition for only children has been held since 2004 to nurture their interests in preparing barbecue.

The kids competition, a popular part of the Pigfest, guarantees young winners.

Being in Lakeland was a great way to enjoy barbecue festivities, participate as a judge, and appreciate the warm temperatures of Florida in January. It’s a plan that needs to be repeated.

The Swine Dynasty cooking team displays trophies won at past events.

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