Although you're more likely to find people huddling over their smokers in warmer weather, barbeque is a year-round passion. And for some, it's a whole lot more, says A Fan's Notes commentator Victor Wishna:
Kansas City, of course, is synonymous with barbecue…and barbecue is all but inseparable from our sports experience. Just try to imagine Arrowhead on game day without that haze of charcoal smoke wafting across the parking lot.
It’s only natural then that the line between barbecue and sports would sooner or later disappear altogether.
Competitive barbecue… is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. More than fifteen million people are expected to attend a festival or cook-off this year—almost as many as saw an NFL game in person last season, and triple the number from just five years ago. And while Memphis and Texas and the Carolinas can bicker over their place in the pantheon, when it comes to barbecue as sport, Kansas City is the cradle and clear capital. The governing body—barbecue’s NCAA or FIFA, if you will—is right here: The Kansas City Barbeque Society.
When three local friends gathered one evening in 1985 and decided to start a barbecue club, they had no intention of expanding beyond their small circle—and no idea they were laying the groundwork for an entire new subculture.
Today, the KCBS is an international organization with more than 17,000 members and a database of nearly nine thousand competitive-barbecue teams. Forget Lions and Tigers and Bears—these teams have names like All Sauced Up, Pellet Envy, and South Pork.
And where there used to be only a few scattered cook-offs, the KCBS will sanction more than 400 contests this year, from Silicon Valley to Staten Island, and as far away as the Netherlands (where it’s called barbeh-KOO-en).
Some on the barbecue tour have gone pro, living off winnings from the sport’s three-point-five-million-dollar purse and their own careers as instructors, caterers, and cookbook-authors that the circuit has spawned. Several even have sponsorship deals. Not Nike, of course. More like…Kingsford or Weber.
For most, though, this is a weekend passion. The roll of entries cuts across gender, ethnic, and socio-economic lines. Good ol’ boys and girls cook alongside federal judges, neurosurgeons, and nuclear physicists. A pair of former Senate staffers, in D.C., teams up on the circuit as Pork Barrel BBQ. There are Kids-Qs for competitors as young as five, while retirement homes host sanctioned, seniors-only events.
As with any worthy sport, there are copious rules governing everything from spices and garnishes to cooking times to the sizes and cuts of meat. Barbecue is a game of inches, and seconds matter.
The best competitors must be quadruple threats, skilled in cooking chicken, ribs, brisket, and pork butt. It’s the only way to earn Team of the Year points, and qualify for the World Series of Barbecue—yes, in October, here at the American Royal. Rankings are determined using proprietary tabulation software that weights scores to ten-thousandths of a point. In that respect, the KCBS isn’t so different from the BCS.
For all the strictness of competition, barbecue contests are remarkable for the special camaraderie they engender, and awards ceremonies where those who didn’t win cheer on those who did. The vast majority of these showdowns are also charitable fundraisers.
From Kansas City, the barbecue gospel is spreading worldwide. This summer, of course, all eyes will be on London. KCBS executive director Carolyn Wells herself is flying there to judge the first-ever barbecue cook-off at the Taste of London festival. Oh, and the Olympics will be there, too.
Let’s be clear—barbecue is not an athletic endeavor. Hopefully we won’t see the day when cooking pork butt meets any of our nation’s dwindling P.E. requirements.
But considering that so many of our sports evolved from war—as a way to determine winners and losers without killing each other—it’s easy to warm to a homegrown competition that began, according to its founders, as a way to escape the battles of everyday life, sit around with friends…and drink beer…while the meat cooks over a slow, low…wood-fueled fire.
Victor Wishna is a writer, editor, author, and sports fan. He lives in Leawood. You can hear “A Fan’s Notes” monthly on Up to Date.