Inside The World of Competitive Barbecue: “He Got Total Bite-Through!”


If there’s one thing that keeps Lucas Darnell awake at night, it’s the Backwoods smokers that sit on the driveway behind his Bristow, Va., home.

Darnell, a competitive barbecue pitmaster, spends most of his weekends cooking, and he’s been known to roll out of bed two or three times in a night just to check temperature readings, which get recorded by a digital thermometer attached to a computer where the data is saved.

“This is my obsession,” he says. “You need consistent heat.”

When I first meet Darnell and his team, Old Virginia Smoke, it’s a Saturday afternoon, and they’re in the middle of practice, one of dozens last winter and spring. It’s part of the training they’ll do to prepare for barbecue season, which runs through summer and fall. This is their second year of competing, and the team is looking for their first-ever championship win.

His wife Kim Darnell leads prep work for the saucing and sweetening of ribs. Meanwhile, his close friend Leigh Anne Terry is keeping time, making sure the team sticks to a minute-by-minute schedule.

The real moment of truth comes comes two hours later. I’m chomping into some chicken that’s just come out of the smoker, and the breast meat is tender and lathered in a buttery-sweet barbecue sauce.

“He got bite-through! He got total bite-through!” Darnell screams.

Bite-through, which I’m later told is the appearance of teeth marks on the meat, is an important qualifier for the judges at the Kansas City Barbeque Society, one of the sanctioning bodies for competitive barbecue. And it’s enough to make Darnell well up and cry. Without hesitation, he follows it up by giving me a wet, sloppy kiss on the cheek.

So it goes in competitive barbecuing, where emotions run high and passion is expressed both in the food and reactions to winning.

To an outsider, this is an insane hobby. At competition, the Old Virginia Smoke team will spend more than 12 hours of cooking and days of preparation to turn in a mere six pieces of chicken, pork, and beef for the judges’ approval. The sport of barbecue (and it’s very much a sport to competitors) is anything but perfect. It can be costly, timely, and especially messy—the most common tool in any team’s kitchen is a deep supply of paper towels and aluminum foil.

“We know this is not the next great spectator sport, but the passion is there,” says Carolyn Wells, the executive director of the Kansas City Barbecue Society. She oversees thousands of judges around the country who inspect and rate barbecue on appearance, consistency, flavor, seasoning, and sauce. “Sure, these people can come off a little crazy, but they’re kind of like quilters: They have a passion in honoring a time-honored tradition.”

For a rookie team, the world of barbecuing is much bigger than winning a trophy. It’s an opportunity to turn a love of backyard cooking into a professional dream, one they’re hoping could also become a side or full-time catering business.

If D.C. has a barbecue soul, it’s probably on display at competitions like the ones that Old Virginia Smoke enters around the region, says Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company founder John Snedden. Before he started his restaurant, which now includes four locations and a catering business, he also cooked at competitions.

Snedden says he misses the big ones, like the National Capital Barbecue Battle, one of the largest in the Mid-Atlantic. This year’s Safeway Barbecue Battle, to be held on June 21 and 22, will bring dozens of teams from around the country to Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

Teams like Old Virginia Smoke compete in about a dozen challenges a year. Darnell previously competed on other teams as a cook, but he found an opportunity to take up his own team and lead as pitmaster. Their goal is to win an individual competition (the grand championship prize) or for specific categories of meat. In a traditional Kansas City Barbecue Society cook-off, there are four categories: chicken, pork ribs, pork butt, and brisket.

If there’s one theme of Old Virginia Smoke’s season, it’s this: “We just want to hear our name get called out,” Darnell says.

* * *

On competition day, the smell of hickory wood chips and smoked meat hits you as you approach the fairgrounds field in Fredericksburg, Va. It’s the Barbecue Jamboree, the season opener for Old Virginia Smoke, and Darnell and his team have already been here for two days. They’re operating on just a few hours of sleep after camping out in their mobile kitchen.

There are teams from as far away as Texas and Missouri, and many are members of the Mid-Atlantic Barbecue Association, who compete against each other throughout the season for larger cumulative awards, like team of the year. Today, there’s a side bet for the team that wins the brisket category. Each member has put up a premium bottle of whiskey, and the winner takes home all 11.

Old Virginia Smoke appears anxious, but focused. Their biggest distinction to date is the Mid-Atlantic Barbecue Association’s rookie of the year award, which also carries with it a curse—only one other team has ever won a grand championship after being named rookie of the year.

“I’ve also got a chance to win this motherfucker,” Mike Skahill says to his competition. He’s a retired D.C. Fire Department sergeant with more than 30 years of service. Skahill wears a DCFD hat with pigs and other barbecue insignia pinned to it.

At 9 a.m. on competition day, his site is the gathering spot for a ceremonial shot of Wild Turkey before each team goes into the last five hours of the contest, the critical period when the meats come off the smokers and grills, and final preparations are made for presentation, boxing, delivery, and judging.

“It’s friendly, but we’re all here to win it,” Skahill says. “And, you have to watch out because some people shig.”

“Shigging” is a term used by almost everyone here. It describes when an opponent stops by to engage in friendly small talk, when really he or she is taking size of your cooking. It’s spying. Shigging can be particularly useful, Skahill says, when you want to know the types of spice rubs and sauces that go into someone else’s barbecue. To prevent it, he hides his homemade rubs in generic Stubb’s BBQ jars like you can find in the grocery store.

For the most part, these competitions are friendly, says Mid-Atlantic Barbecue Association president Michael Fay. In the last three year, he’s seen interest grow and membership double. The region now has about 300 teams. The growth also has coincided with larger national interest: There are more regional contests, and even a reality television show about competition barbecue, BBQ Pitmasters.

Today’s competitions look a lot different than the ones Rocklands founder Snedden entered almost 30 years ago. Barbecue in D.C. wasn’t at the same level then. “At the time, the competitions were really more just yahoos and hobbyists. I don’t think you could even call it a professional circuit,” he says. “When I started, there wasn’t a lot going on in barbecue here. D.C. is not Kansas City. It’s not Memphis, and it’s not like a lot of other southern cities.”

Snedden competed largely to gain skills that would help him launch a full-fledged barbecue catering business winning his first grand championship in a statewide competition in Roanoke, Va., in 1985. Snedden competed in dozens of events before opening his first restaurant in Glover Park in 1990.

But competitions aren’t the only training grounds where the barbecue-obsessed can expand and build their craft. Just peer over the fence to a neighbor’s yard, and you might see how the curiosity of barbecue has reached new levels of obsession, Snedden says. It’s putting this backyard ritual on par with other craft-driven pursuits, like brewing beer or coffee at home.

So far, competition-style barbecue has helped Old Virginia Smoke top out a Kickstarter campaign, which raised $5,000 toward a portable trailer that’s now its primary cooking space at competitions. In Fredericksburg, the team spends most of its time inside this 400-square-foot kitchen before turning over its final presentations to the judges. Each prepared box is on a schedule: Old Virginia Smoke turns in its chicken at noon, ribs at 12:30 p.m., pork at 1 p.m., and finally the brisket at 1:30 p.m.

By the time Darnell takes six pork shoulders off the smoker, he and his team look physically exhausted. They’re now busy preparing pulled pork samples for the thousand or so attendees.

“Most people who come for the tastes, don’t see the real action because it’s all but over by the time they get here,” Darnell says. By late afternoon, the lines of people have cleared, and only a back rub, some West Virginia moonshine, and back-and-forth pacing can keep Darnell calm before the judges’ decision.

If back in March the sight of teeth marks on chicken could make Darnell cry, nothing could have prepared him for this moment in Fredericksburg. He’s sobbing into the arms of his wife Kim. And he’s frantically shuffling around in his pockets for his cellphone: “I’m calling mom.”

After an agonizingly long delay, Old Virginia Smoke hears its name called from the grandstand at the Barbecue Jamboree. The team wins first place for brisket, and with it the side bet of 11 whiskey bottles. There’s also a $600 cash prize payout and a trophy with a smoker mounted to the top.

It’s their first ever win, but it’s not their last. A month later, I receive a call from Darnell. “We beat them all,” he says quietly. “It still hasn’t sunk in.”

Old Virginia Smoke took home its first grand championship win at a Kansas City Barbecue competition in Fort Washington, Md., on June 7. The win also means it’ll have an additional competition to add to their schedule this year: the American Royal in Kansas City, affectionately called the World Series of Barbecue. Darnel’s team is also in the running for the Mid-Atlantic Barbecue Association’s team of the year.

But aside from a few changes to its recipe and fewer nerves, Darnell says his team is still having fun. “We’re still competing for the same reason,” he says. “We just want to hear our name get called.”

Photo by Tim Ebner

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