PLANT CITY Smoke billowed throughout the 11th annual Plant City Pig Jam State BBQ Championship Nov. 23rd, trailing the tantalizing smell of savory smoked meat and tangy sauces.
A throng 15,000 or so strong fanned across the Randy L. Larson Softball Four-Plex in search of championship-quality barbecue pork, ribs, brisket and chicken. There was no lack of options, which included a small army of seasoned grill-masters, along with vendors selling sauces, lemonade, strawberry shortcake, honey – even frog legs.
But it was that fresh, just-off-the-grill aroma that led people to queue at some stalls.
Jeff Strouse and Parker Sperry of New Tampa followed their noses to the pulled pork at Swamp Boys booth. “It’s really good,” said Strouse.
Michael and Tammy Williams of Safety Harbor, already stoked with ribs and brisket, stopped by Skin & Bones to check out the menu. Tammy’s eyes widened as Cody Glasco of Skin & Bones assembled a giant mound of fried chips laced with melted cheese, bacon bits and chives.
“Oh my God. They are awesome,” Tammy said, munching on a chip. “They all have such big portions. We have leftovers of everything.”
Dover residents Rick and Alicia Rousey, with friends Tim and Patty Buffington of Sun City, also contemplated the towering advertisements and trophies in front of Skin & Bones. “All those state championships, it’s got to be good, right?” said Rick Rousey.
While Skin & Bones drew customers with trophies and tall signs, Swino’s trophy-decked, piglet-pink jeep caught many an eye, as did Open Pit BBQ, which spit-roasted a whole hog over charcoal for three hours. Less flamboyant, but still effective, Jason Tarantino, of Nacho Ordinary BBQ, sported the Grand Poobah headpiece of Flintstones fame.
Many of the teams’ names creatively bespoke their barbecue base: Ring of Fire, Rub Me Tender, Sho Gud Bbq, Smoke on the Lakes, Hogs Gone Wild and Ja Makin ME Hungry.
Others reflected the flavor of a region, and the sauces favored there. Tar Heel Cookers offered a traditional North Carolina vinegar-based sauce, along with an Apple Bourbon Barbecue Sauce.
Mark Butler and his son, Jackson, tried the vinegar sauce. “It’s got its own flavor, a spicy rich taste to it,” Mark Butler said.
Melissa Messick and Jimmy Saling of Land O’Lakes preferred Caribbean BBQ Ribs Sauces & Seasonings, taking home bottles of Caribbean, Sweet Island and Jamaica Jerk sauces.
In the children’s area, youngsters bounced, climbed the rock wall and slid down inflatable slides.
Benni Lance congratulated his son, Benjamin, 8, for successfully ringing the bell at the top of the rock-climbing wall. “It was terrifying. It was good,” said Benjamin.
Nancy and Artie Taylor brought children Vinny, 6, and Adrianna, 9, to the Pig Jam for the first time. “We’re trying everything,” said Nancy Taylor.
While festival-goers enjoyed the food, drinks, children’s activities and music, a more serious undertaking unfolded away from the hot coals of the cookers and chopping of cleavers. This, after all, was a state championship barbeque competition, sanctioned by the venerable Kansas City Barbeque Society, established in 1986.
Four society representatives were in attendance: Carolyn Wells, co-founder and executive director of KCBS, Mike Garretson of Oviedo, Stephen R. Smith of Ocala, and Clifton Welch of Orange Park.
The representatives supervise the judges, work out issues and opportunities and keep the organizer from having to reinvent the wheel, said Wells. “Cooks, judges, organizers and the organization, without any of those components, you can’t compete. It’s a very gratifying culture to be in.”
Sequestered in a building just off the main venue, the 98 judges and 5 alternates ranked 54 professional and 33 backyard contestants’ entries in four categories: barbecue pork, chicken, brisket and ribs.
Each category was judged separately, and entries were re-numbered when they were turned in.
Nine tables, with seven judges each, were assigned to the professional category, while five tables of judges ranked the backyard entries.
Criteria for judging is kept to “appearance,” “taste” and “tenderness.”
“We go for the lowest common denominator. Keep it as simple, but as tight as possible, for judging,” said Wells. “We (KCBS) are in the trust business. Integrity is the only thing we have to sell.”
Scoring runs from one to nine; with nine equaling excellent and two as inedible. A score of one means disqualification. Only two entries were disqualified: one because it contained a sauce cup; another because it arrived at the wrong time.
Two top contenders for the KCBS Team of the Year award were on hand at the Plant City Pig Jam State Championship. Teams participating in KCBS-sanctioned events earn points during the year, and the team having the most points snags the Team of the Year award, ring and cash prize in Kansas City in January, said Wells. As the year comes to a close, the race heats up. Kansas-based TRUEBUD BBQ led going into the contest, followed by Warren County Pork Choppers of Kentucky.
Tim Grant, head cook for TRUEBUD BBQ, said the team started the year strong and set several records, including winning 16 KCBS contests and six consecutive contests in a season. Grant, his wife Christy and teammate Boyd Abts, have competed in 41 events so far this year. Whether they’ll compete in California or Georgia in December depended on “today, if we can lock our spot,” Grant said. “It’s all up to the judges.”
The Pig Jam’s sponsor, the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce, was pleased with the event, chamber President Marion Smith said.
“We appreciate everybody’s support. It brings so many people to Plant City and we get to showcase our community,” said Smith. “I’ve always said if we can get somebody here, they’ll come back.”
Here are the Pig Jam winners
Grand Champion: Warren County Pork Choppers, Donny Bray, Bowling Green, KY, $3,000.
Reserve Champion: Chix, Swine & Bovine BBQ, Michael Richter, Jessup, $2,000
First Place: (Each Professional first-place winner won $600 and a trophy)
Chicken: Smokin Blue Q, Tim Durno, Sewall’s Point
Ribs: Sho Gud Barbeque, Jay Bickel, Tampa
Pork: Chix, Swine, & Bovine BBQ, Mike Richter, Jessup
Brisket: The Blue Bloods, David Mauro, Louisiana
Grand Champion: Who’s Cookin BBQ, Rusty Baker and Scott Williams, $300.
First Place: (Each amateur first-place winner won $150 and a trophy)
Chicken: Pigsilly, Henry Hartzner, Wesley Chapel
Ribs: Ja Makin ME Hungry, Keith Shirah, Lakeland
Pork: Drunken Brothers BBQ, Logan Harris, Lakeland
Brisket: Back Country BBQ, Jeremy Walden, Lakeland