Saturday, April 29, 2017

Judging in the Barbecue Capital of the World

If a city can claim to be the capital of barbecue, it is Lexington, NC. It proclaims to have more barbecue restaurants per person than any other city, and its own barbecue style is recognized worldwide. For many years its barbecue festival has attracted thousands and been one of the country’s most popular food events. When Lexington began holding a barbecue cookoff, I had to be a judge.

Full-size ornamental pigs, such as this one in front of the historic courthouse, throughout Lexington proclaim the city as the Barbecue Capital of the World.

In addition to celebrating barbecue, the BBQ Capital Cookoff is helping to revitalize the historic train depot area of Uptown Lexington. Where textile, furniture, and other manufacturing activities once dominated the city’s center, dilapidated and vacant structures are being removed or renovated to serve new retail, restaurant, entertainment, and other mixed-use purposes. Held in the district on the grounds of the new city amphitheater, which opened just days before the 2017 cookoff, the contest has become a signature event for Uptown Lexington and its proceeds are reinvested into the Uptown district.

The city newspaper promotes the cookoff on its front page.

The cooking teams spread out on the grassy areas next to the amphitheater, and the judges met in the historic depot by tracks still active. The quietness of the judging process was intermittently interrupted by the sounds of six trains -- a passenger train heading north from Charlotte and five freight trains, all heading south – rumbling by on an adjacent track.

Banners about the cookoff adorn Main Street in Uptown Lexington.

Since it began in 2011, the cookoff has continued to gain local interest and enthusiasm. The event has usually included two days of music that now can be showcased professionally on the stage of the new amphitheater. Last year, a motorcycle ride to raise awareness about autism was rescheduled to be the first official event of the cookoff, and this year the ride began and ended at the cookoff location. In addition, another new attraction was added: a car show (with 15 trophies).

The smokestack of the former Dixie Furniture Co. overlooks antique vehicles participating in the car show.

The contest attracted an eclectic assortment of judges. A couple were novice judges; one was participating in his 100th event; several others had already judged at more than 100 (one at 126). One judge was scheduled to judge at 30 contests this year. The entries of the 38 teams at the cookoff were unusually superior, perhaps because experienced teams were enticed to compete by almost $16,000 in prize money.

Piggy charts guided judges to the right seats.

When I first attended the barbecue festival 10 years ago, Lexington instantly became one of my favorite destinations. Plus two of my favorite barbecue restaurants -- Lexington #1 and The Barbecue Center – are among the 16 in the city that preserve the heritage of cooking pork shoulders slowly over hickory coals. 

Cooking teams set up on grassy areas in the depot district where manufacturing business once stood.

The cookoff similarly honors the city’s barbecue traditions. Although Lexington is only one of the 25 places where I’ve been judge at a cookoff, it’s definitely a favorite.

Mcadoo Heights BBQ took home the trophy for the Grand Champion.

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