To the untrained palate, barbecue is barbecue. It simply exists in one form or another on the menus of restaurants and occasionally at a backyard gathering. But to a growing number of barbecue aficionados who seek perfection in their smoked meats, Dothan has become somewhat of a “hog holy land” and a mecca of barbecue.
It’s no secret that barbecue is big business in the South. Take a look at all the restaurants offering smoked pork, chicken and brisket and you’ll soon realize that there’s money in barbecue. But, for several hundred men (and a few women) who are in the profession of “pitmaster”, a restaurant isn’t needed to make a living. The real fame and fortune of barbecue has lately become the world of professional competition barbecue and reality television.
Professional competitions sprung up in the 1980’s first with the American Royal in Kansas City, Missouri which is known as the World Series of Barbecue. As more and more teams became interested in the sport, a sanctioning body was needed to regulate the contests and make sure the same rules were enforced uniformly. The Kansas City Barbecue Society was born in 1985 and has grown to be the largest member-based governing body of competition barbecue. Other sanctioning bodies include the Florida Bar-B-Que Association, the Memphis Barbecue Network, the International Barbecue Cookers Association, and the Pacific Northwest Barbecue Association.
Dothan is one of only a few cities nationwide whose barbecue claim to fame is that they host two different professional barbecue competitions annually, sanctioned by two different governing bodies. The Tri-State BBQ Festival, the 2nd weekend in April, has been a Florida Bar-B-Que sanctioned event since its inception in 2006. PorktoberQue, the last weekend in September, brought the Kansas City Barbecue Society to the Wiregrass. Both events are nationally recognized as top-notch competitions, and both were named to the State of Alabama Tourism Board’s “Top 50 Food Festivals” list for 2013. Dothan even garnered national attention when the hit TV show BBQ Pitmasters filmed a 2012 episode at the Tri-State, naming it one of the best competitions in Alabama.
Competitors from across the country travel hundreds of miles to reach our barbecue mecca, hoping to win thousands of dollars in prize money. Previous teams have come from as far away as New Mexico, Minnesota and Michigan, but the majority of teams come from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee. Most of the teams coming from outside the Wiregrass enjoy the charming Southern hospitality of Dothan while relishing the well-organized competition and fellowship of the sport.
Barbecue competitions, regardless of the sanctioning body, follow some similarities with the kinds of meat cooked and how it is presented to the judges. (The exception to this rule is the Memphis in May competition in which judges come to the cook site to score the whole hog cooking. Apparently it’s too difficult to carry a cooked whole hog into the judges area.) For the most part, teams cook a variety of meats and turn them in to a judging area at specified times. Teams are provided uniform looking “turn-in boxes” which typically have an assigned number that corresponds to the team name. The team name is kept off the turn-in box in an effort to not sway judges opinions if the team is well known in the barbecue community, and this type of judging is referred to as “blind judging”.
Both of the barbecue competitions in Dothan cook the same four meats for the judges to score— chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder (Boston Butt) and beef brisket. It is widely accepted that these four meats represent the most commonly barbecued items, and it requires a fair amount of skill to master cooking each of these different foods. In other parts of the country, regional favorites may be cooked, such as mutton in Kentucky, and even salmon or fish in the Pacific Northwest.
Different sanctioning bodies have different rules, which competitors need to keep straight in their head at a competition. For example, Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) rules dictate that garnish is allowed — and actually preferred— in a team’s turn in box, while Florida Bar-B-Que rules state that nothing but meat (no garnish) is allowed in the turn in box. If a team were to forget and insert garnish into a FBA sanctioned event, it would mean instant disqualification.
With over $10,000 in prize money on the line each year at the Tri-State BBQ Festival and $5,000 in prize money at PorktoberQue, professional competition teams can take cooking quite seriously. Some noted teams that have competed in Dothan who have done well have been featured on television and make a full-time living as professional pitmasters. Some of these noted teams who have competed in town are Myron Mixon of Jack’s Old South, Bubba Latimer with Bub-Ba-Que, LeAnn Whippen of Wood Chicks Barbecue and Michael Mixon (Myron’s son who is always trying to beat his dad) with Jack’s New South.
Competition barbecue tastes different than restaurant barbecue. A lot different. So much so in fact that most people who have tasted professional barbecue won’t eat at barbecue restaurant chains any more. Part of the reason is that competitors will take extra care to trim, brine and season the meat before it is cooked. (Brine is a salty solution that some meats are soaked in to add moisture and flavor to the meat prior to the long smoking process.) The preparation of the meat can take hours, with careful attention paid to every detail. During the cooking process, which can take from four to fourteen hours, many cooks will “mop” the meat with a vinegar sauce to promote a moister finished product. This is the kind of attention to detail that many restaurants don’t have the time or manpower to perform, but a dedicated competition cook will insist upon.
Dothan is lucky to be able to bring some of the best competitive cooks in from around the country for two barbecue festivals each year. Though a local team has never been crowned Grand Champion at any of the combined nine sanctioned events in town there’s always hope that an up-and-coming local team might reign supreme. Both the KCBS and FBA actively promote cooking classes, judges classes and events in the area in an effort to create more momentum for the barbecue movement, which appears to be here to stay.