BROOKSVILLE — To outsiders, it may seem like a casual barbecue festival — a relaxing, smoky way to spend a Saturday afternoon. But to the folks who handle the tongs, competitive barbecuing is a serious trial by fire.
What comes off the grill is a matter of honor and glory — but, most important, bragging rights.
The fourth Blazin' Butts-n-Brisket BBQ Competition promises all of that and more. As a qualifier for the prestigious Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue contest, the event has already drawn 20 professional teams, plus several "backyard" amateur entries.
For years, the barbecue competition was held in October as part of the annual Brooksville Founders Week. But parks and recreation director Mike Walker said that date proved to be too much in demand for pro grillers, many of whom plan their events months, even years, in advance. As a result, it was often tough to attract high-quality teams. Last year's event had to be canceled after organizers failed to draw enough entrants.
"Having a May date seems to have done the trick," Walker said. "We've got a great lineup this year. People are going to love it."
Professional barbecuing is judged on three criteria: appearance, tenderness and, of course, taste. The first two are pretty straightforward. The last is much more subjective, which often brings an element of edginess when it comes to determining who will take home the $1,500 grand prize.
Rob Bagby knows this well. His barbecued pork recipe won him world champion honors at the 2009 Jack Daniels competition. But what works fine in one event may not in another, so he's constantly adjusting spices to achieve a more balanced flavor.
"It's always best to play to mass appeal when it comes to competition," said Bagby, whose Swamp Boys barbecue team hails from Winter Haven. "Getting six judges to agree on anything is tough. If you have too much of one spice in your rub, you're bound to find someone who doesn't like it."
For visitors, of course, the thrill comes with a sampling of what's left over after the judging, Bagby said.
"I'd have to agree that the next best thing to cooking barbecue is eating it," Bagby said. "There's just nothing else really like it."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.