For tens of thousands of people, the South by Southwest Interactive, Film, and Music Conference and its Downtown environs define the known universe for a couple of weeks every March. During the same time period, however, an alternative universe exists at the Travis County Expo Center (7311 Decker), where the two-week Rodeo Austin entertainment extravaganza plays to big crowds of its own. Although there's lots of volunteer labor involved in putting on both events and usually some overlap in musical bookings (the Peterson Brothers this year), the two events cover pretty different territory. Rodeo Austin features the fourth largest indoor professional rodeo in the country, animal shows and sales for 4-H kids, mutton-busting for little would-be rodeo-riders, a mighty carnival midway, and a weekend of amateur barbecue competition, all of it dedicated to preserving Western heritage and raising college money for Rodeo Austin scholars. One area where my own interests merge with Rodeo Austin is barbecue, so last year Kenny Pailes and I wrangled ourselves an invitation to judge at the cook-off, and went to check it out.
Rodeo Austin BBQ Cook-off committee chairman Shayne Lockhart and volunteer coordinator Wanda Hawkins greeted us warmly and gave us the rundown on the strict rules of the competition. Cooking teams can enter brisket, pork ribs, chicken, beans, Bloody Marys, and/or a jackpot dish (usually game or seafood, sometimes chili or gumbo). Before cooking begins, teams must present their meat to the meat inspector, who verifies that it hasn't been brined, marinated, rubbed, or injected with any flavor enhancements. Once the meat qualifies, cooking teams are given a strict schedule for when each dish has to be delivered to the judges, which establishes the parameters of their cooking time. For example, we were judging pork ribs, which had to be turned in at 1pm, which means they'd been prepping and cooking most of the morning.
In addition to preparing dishes for competition, each team agrees to cook at least 50 pounds of meat to serve the public from their hospitality booth. Some of the booths are simple and rustic, with only a portable barbecue pit and a couple of folding tables. Others are grand, tented affairs with fully equipped kitchens, attractive hostesses, raffles, and tables and chairs, plus stages and sound systems offering live music. Each booth has a donation bucket, and cook-off guests are encouraged to make donations for drinks and food samples. Many of the teams are made up of friends who have competed for years. They spend months soliciting sponsorships in the range of $20- $40,000 for every aspect of their booth and then compete seriously for the bragging rights associated with winning barbecue awards as well as having the best hospitality and highest donations. Trophies are awarded, and the prize money for the barbecue competition comes from the entry fees paid by each team. We were told teams often return the winnings as donations.
We judges were sequestered in a tent with tables containing forks, napkins, water, saltine crackers, sticks of celery and carrots, and cheese cubes; everything needed to keep our hands clean and our palates refreshed between boxes of ribs. Judging forms were distributed, and we were instructed to give numerical scores for taste and appearance. Just before 1pm, the chief cooks of each team queued up outside with plain Styrofoam clamshell boxes full of pork ribs without any sauce or garnish. Each entry was assigned a number corresponding to the team, and then Wanda's volunteer crew began delivering boxes to the judging tables. We sampled more than 20 boxes of ribs that day, and while a couple were tough and chewy and a couple more dry and charred, by and large they were pretty respectable specimens, with one or two real stand-outs. After the first 12 to 15 boxes, however, some of the finer points got lost and everything just tasted like smoke. It was fun and educational to see such a well-run operation in the works, but this year I volunteered to judge the jackpot category, hoping for more variety.
The Rodeo Austin BBQ Cook-off takes place March 7-8, 1-10pm, at the Southwest corner of the Travis County Expo Center (7311 Decker). Free with fairgrounds admission. Bring small bills for stuffing in the donation buckets. For more info, see www.rodeoaustin.com.
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