Saturday, July 18, 2015

Barbecue with Altitude

With a small population of only 7,000, Galax, Va., achieves what many large cities only attempt: a successful and popular barbecue competition that draws many well-known and successful cooking teams and attracts the local community to spend a day or two in its central business district. Smoke on the Mountain has been conducted for ten years, and each year it adds to its reputation as the official Virginia state barbecue championship.

Dancers add to the merriment created by the old-time mountain music performers.

With a motto of “Barbecue with Altitude,” the contest accentuates Galax’s claim as the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the city’s elevation of 2,500 feet. Galax is also a favorite destination because it is the World Capital of Old-Time Mountain Music, a traditional American music that gave rise to bluegrass, country, rock and other styles, and home of the Old Fiddlers’ Convention, the world’s largest and oldest fiddlers’ convention.

Percussion by a washboard (lower left) creates a special old-time mountain sound.

With such a cultural legacy, it’s somewhat surprising that Galax was named in 1906 for a low-growing evergreen shrub native to the southern Appalachian Mountains. Its leaves are valued in the florist trade because they are attractive, sturdy, and have a long shelf life. Today, a more fitting name would be Smoke City because spiraling columns of smoke fill the downtown area during its barbecue competitions.

A potted Galax plant makes a great souvenir.

At the meeting of Kansas City Barbeque Society judges, organizer Ron Passmore explained how important the event is to the local economy. For Galax and its surrounding area, the contest is more than entertainment – it’s economic development for stores, restaurants, motels, and other businesses. When I went into several antique stores in downtown Galax, I was surprised how busy each one was with customers who had wandered inside on their stroll through the city.

Judges relax before the competition begins.
Vendors along the city’s main streets and near the competing cooking teams enjoy the crowds that meander among their booths and venture into the local shops. In addition to music performed on the Farmers’ Market stage, the street scene also includes bluegrass and old-time music by local ensembles who watch as spectators dance while they play.

Ribs are prepared by the Bare Bones BBQ team.

When Smoke on the Mountain began, it was sanctioned by the Memphis Barbecue Network, an organization that promotes the “Memphis style” of barbecue. As the event continued to grow, it added the sanctioning of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the reason that I attended as a judge for the competition among the 29 teams contesting for KCBS prizes. A dual contest is unusual and enhances the influence that the event has to attract superior cooking teams.

Serial Griller team placed in the top 5 overall as well as in the pork and brisket categories for the KCBS contest.

For the 2015 event, 43 teams entered, and eight competed in both KCBS and MBN categories. The contest offered a total of $12,000 in prizes, including a total of $5,500 for the KCBS competition. In recognition of Galax’s long heritage of traditional music, handmade musical instruments are also awarded as trophies to the grand champions of the KCBS (a guitar) and MBN (a banjo) competitions. MBN runners-up receive fiddle trophies, and KCBS runners-up receive Galax leaf plaques. (The MBN grand champion is also invited to compete in the World BBQ Championship because Smoke on the Mountain is a qualifying event.)

Trophies await the awards ceremony after all judging scores have been tabulated.

Smoke on the Mountain has definitely earned its place at the mountain top of barbecue competitions. It awards amazing handmade prizes (plus money), the street scene is unmatched, and the cooking teams are phenomenal.

The Shed team from Ocean Springs, Miss., brought the most unusual grill (vehicle on the trailer).

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