Saturday, November 7, 2015

Shelby, a Legendary Place for Barbecue

Shelby, NC, is where many people go for great barbecue. As the home of Red Bridges’ Barbecue Lodge as well as the annual Hog Happnin’ cookoff, Shelby has been on the “barbecue map” for a long time.

One of the prominent destinations on the North Carolina Barbecue Trail, Red Bridges’ has contributed to N.C. barbecue lore and brought many visitors to Shelby, a small city in western North Carolina between Charlotte and Asheville. They come to taste barbecue prepared by third-generation family members who learned their craft from the original Bridges, who himself learned the art of cooking pork shoulders slowly over wood coals from legendary Warner Stamey of Greensboro. Similarly, the Hog Happnin’ entices visitors to Shelby with its fine reputation as a competitive barbecue event since it began 24 years ago.

Hog Happnin' is held at the Cleveland County (NC) Fairgrounds.

After visiting Red Bridges’ earlier this year, I wanted to be a judge for the Hog Happnin’ to experience how it contributed to the barbecue culture of Shelby, the county seat of Cleveland County. A large crowd at Hog Happnin’ is typical because the weather during the first weekend in November is almost always perfect. Only once before (in 2014) had it rained during the event – and the second time was this year. Although the rain dampened the crowd turnout, it didn’t diminish the spirits of the cooking teams.

Rain chilled but didn't diminish the enthusiasm of the cooking teams.

This year Hog Happnin’ attracted 61 teams – some from as far away as California, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Florida that sought to advance in the overall points tournament held nationwide by KCBS, and they came to Shelby to hold their places in the points race. Teams were also attracted by cash prizes that total $15,000, in addition to the prospects of advancing in the Old North State Barbecue Series. Hog Happnin’ is one of five KCBS-sanctioned events in the series held throughout North Carolina to determine the Old North State Champion (other events are held in Kings Mountain, Lexington, Kannapolis and Salisbury).

Several out-of-state teams, such as this one from Rhode Island, traveled a long distance to compete.

The contest has been superbly organized since it began. Jerry Gardner, whose KCBS membership number of 461 indicates that he is an early member of the Society, served as the event director for its first 17 years. Now as the BBQ competition director, he focuses more specifically on cooking teams, judges, and other competition details.

Although the typical gate fee of $5 was waived, rainy weather reduced the size of the crowd.

I had met Gardner in April at Bib’s Camel City Cookoff (we were seated at the same judges table) and learned about his long involvement and leadership of Hog Happnin’. Gardner also mentioned that registration for judges was timed to open online on June 1. Early that day I completed the application but didn’t receive notification until mid-September that I had been selected as a judge (from his wife Joyce, also a certified judge, who is the judge coordinator). With such a large number of cooking teams, the organizers fielded 12 tables of judges.

Judges relax in the fairgrounds exhibition hall before the turn-in of entries begins.

Since its beginnings, proceeds from the Hog Happnin’ have benefited the local charities. Among its recipients is the Children’s Homes of Cleveland County. According to Gardner, the event has raised more than $300,000 over the last 13 years for the Homes. Before the judging began, Margie Christopher of Children’s Homes spoke to the judges about how important Hog Happnin’ is for providing necessary funds for its annual operations.

Winner of the Grand Championship was Smokin' Mo's, a team from California.

Although being a judge is a reward in itself, an added benefit at Hog Happnin’ is that judges are treated to homemade ice cream after all entries have been judged. Made by David Lail of Frostbite Ridge Farm, it was the perfect end to the competition.

Homemade ice cream is a great way to finish an afternoon of BBQ judging.

Shelby is a logical location to conduct a barbecue cooking competition. Hog Happnin’ has deservedly earned its place in the statewide culture for promoting and enjoying barbecue and in the community for contributing to worthwhile causes.

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