I have cooked and been an aficionado of BBQ for most of 40 years, and I can tell you the result of these wars is BBQ that restaurants only dream of making - bar none.
The folks attending, competing and organizing the Anchor City Cook-off, a Kansas City BBQ Society (KCBS) event, were universally friendly and helpful to a Newb (me), and boy did I need the help. Some competitors will give you all the friendly advice you can absorb, along with their "secret" methods and ingredients - secure in the knowledge that, armed with this information, it will still take one many years for one to duplicate their finished products. The fellows next to me on the grass infield let me pester them endlessly and watch as they cooked and assembled their meats - quite a process. I am grateful for their guidance.
Here's the basics: You are given 4 times, a half-hour apart, to turn in each of your four meat entries - chicken, pork butt, ribs and beef brisket. Everyone gets 4 turn-in boxes, which are a 9" x 9" styrafoam take-out container like what you get in a restaurant. In each box, you put 6 small servings of one meat so 6 judges can rate your efforts. The judging is on appearance, tenderness and taste. Each meat category is judged and awards given by category and for overall points across the categories. Sounds simple; simple it is not.
Garnishes are carefully chosen and trimmed for each turn-in box. Sauces and dry rubs are debated and their merits weighed by every contestant. Heat levels and cooking times vary widely. The fuels used, like charcoal, hickory, oak, etc. are chosen, aged when necessary, and used differently by everyone. Gas, propane or other fuels are forbidden for cooking. Some meats, like brisket can be cooked anywhere from 5 to 15 hours before being sent to the judges - everybody has their own method.
The setup and basic gear
The basic equipment includes a pavilion tent (with weights to keep 'em on the ground in the wind), lots of paper towels, cooking implements, chairs, sauces, rubs, prep. tables, multiple buckets to wash, rinse and sanitize; boxes to carry all that stuff and your cooking apparatus. The cookers can range from a Weber kettle to a 3300 lb. wood smoker. The cost of each cooker can range from $50 to the thousands. Here's mine, all 3300 lbs. of it; the cost will remain secret.
My smoker, Tiger-I, and Derek. This smoker will cook 400 lbs. of meat at a time; takes 2 wheelbarrows of wood to do a load of briskets in 12 hrs. Extreme over-kill for a competition.
The rib masters
For example, the fellows next-door cooked several racks of baby-back ribs and St. Louis spareribs. When it was time to put the samples (6) in boxes, they sliced all the ribs apart. They decided that the spareribs looked better and were more tender, so one or more were chosen from among the 2-3 racks cooked to get the 6 ribs necessary. Each rib was trimmed to make the cut look uniform, then each was lovingly basted with agave nectar to give a little sweetness and shine. The ribs were then placed next to each other until a row of 6 looked like it came from the same rack and fit together nicely.
The garnish is ready
The ribs chosen and dressed up
The ribs, chosen and dressed, were placed in the box, which had been meticulously prepared beforehand. The inside was ringed with curly-topped lettuce and the center filled with small florets of parsley, each picked from the bunch and individually trimmed of stems, etc. - dozens of them.
The final test
The rejected extras were tasted to see if any seasoning or other enhancement seemed necessary; I got a rib, and it was insanely good. The box was closed; one team member ran it to the judging area while the other started on the next meat entry, due in 30 minutes - late entries are disqualified. To coordinate rubs, sauces, cooking times and presentation/preparation for four different meats that need to be cooked from 45 minutes to 15 hours is quite a feat. Throughout the contest, they referred to a spreadsheet laid out in a timeline fashion.
Competition Q is not cheap!
Some of these guys and gals attend several events a year. I estimate my cost, including entry fee ($175-$300), meat ($100-$200), transport ($50-$200, depending on distance), lodging ($100-$200) would be close to $500 for an event too far away to sleep at home.
The Q trail can be a hobby, a culture or a business - or all three. At day's end Saturday, I had been there 24 of the previous 33 hours; setting up, cooking, preparing and packing up. I am certainly grateful for Sherry's help, or I'd likely be dead from it. I was exhausted, and could little imagine doing this 2 weeks running.
Next one, I'll do photos and eat other people's Q!