The past 27 years, the barbecue faithful has gathered in a smoky hollow in Lynchburg, Tenn., tinged with autumn colors of orange, yellow, brown and green to celebrate barbecue, Tennessee whiskey, friendship and international cuisine.
Also at stake is what is rightly called Barbecue Champion of the World. Each team brings their skill set, secret recipes and team rituals to give them the edge.
Here’s the drill: Barbecue grand champions from Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the U.S. are invited to participate in a Kansas City Barbeque Society-sanctioned barbecue competition for designation as grand champion of the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue.
Although awards are given for best barbecue sauce, best cook’s choice and best dessert, the grand champion is determined by how teams score with barbecued chicken, pork ribs, pork butt and beef brisket. All invited judges are trained and certified by the Kansas City Barbeque Society.
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Prior to Saturday’s competition for grand champion, five teams got the luck of the draw to compete in the “I Know Jack … about Grillin’ ” on Friday. A Jack Dash 7 Mile Run and 5k Run/Walk commenced early Saturday.
There was live music in the town square, Butt Bowling and a Country Dog Contest in Wiseman Park, plus product demonstrations, shopping and a variety of beverages and foods, including barbecue, to entertain and feed the general public.
My mission on Thursday and Friday was to make sure each team got a Magic Hickory Nut. Enough shagbark hickory nuts for each team have been printed with the contest logo, marinated in Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and secret seasonings, rinsed with Kansas City water and dried in Kansas City sunshine. The team that draws the magic nut is the team that wins the contest, or so the story goes.
This year my friend Gary Bronkema, on his virgin adventure at The Jack as a Shade Tree Judge, helped me make sure each invitational team got a nut. Sometimes it took three or four stops at a team site before finding anyone at home.
When Tuffy Stone drew a nut from the Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 bandana bag, he gently squeezed it and held it with hallowed respect. After that he handed it to me and asked that I repeat his ritual. Then he handed it to Bronkema with the same request. It was Stone’s way of enhancing the magic in the nut.
Friday’s highlight for teams and judges was a party on Barbecue Hill. Southern food was served in the pavilion and Greek-style cuisine compliments of the Primo Ceramic Grills promo team was served outside. Beverages, including the local product, were served in exchange for a drink ticket at two beverage stations.
Between music programs the annual Burning of Regrets happened. The belly of a metal pig named Jasper was filled with papers representing regrets of those present and those who were there in spirit.
Jeff Arnett, master distiller, poured some Old No. 7 on the papers and shared a swig with the pig-hoisting helpers. At the countdown from 10 to zero, Jasper was hoisted onto a fire. Everyone cheered as their regrets went up in smoke.
The centerpiece of the weekend, the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue (aka The Jack), is rich with hundreds of robust, joyful pitmasters, team rituals, and traditions unique to The Jack. Seventy-one invitational teams competed this year in six categories: sauce, cook’s choice, chicken, ribs, pork butt, brisket and dessert.
The Shade Tree barbecue contest, also on Saturday, featured 42 teams this year from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and one team from Pennsylvania. Shade Tree judges evaluated chicken, ribs and pork shoulder entries.
What does it take to be a world grand champion at The Jack? Skill, passion, determination and a commitment to excellence are in the mix. It also helps to believe in magic. Ask Tuffy and George Stone, the 2015 Grand Champion team known as Cool Smoke.
Ardie Davis founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. His most recent releases are America’s Best BBQ (Revised Edition), with chef Paul Kirk, and Barbecue Lover’s Kansas City Style .