SOS: The thrill is in the grill

MARSHALL – Early Friday afternoon, the atmosphere out at Southwest Minnesota State University was a lot like a neighborhood barbecue. People talked and joked as they unloaded grills and smokers, or trimmed cuts of meat. In spite of the banter, however, the teams getting ready for Smokefest competition were serious about making good barbecue.

“You have to enjoy the thrill of competition,” said Gary Harding of Watertown, Minn., as he and teammates got a beef brisket ready for cooking later Friday night.

Nick Schwarz of Marshall said the barbecue contest started out as more of a fun experience for his team last year. But this time around, he said, “I think we’re going to take in a little more and learn.”

SMSU kicked off its seventh annual Smokefest on Friday, and judging starts at noon today. Teams compete in two different divisions to see whose BBQ earns the judges’ top marks, as well as cash prizes. More than 30 teams were anticipated to take part in the competition, said event coordinator Tim Steinbach.

“This is probably one of the best groups of overall teams we’ve had,” including some of the best barbecuers in the country, Steinbach said.

As part of Marshall’s Sounds of Summer festivities, members of the public could also enjoy food and family entertainment on Friday evening.

Over the years, Smokefest has drawn barbecue teams from around the country, Steinbach said. The competition is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, and the grand champion at Smokefest qualifies for a drawing to advance to the Jack Daniels Invitational competition in Tennessee. The winner also qualifies for the Royal Barbecue Contest in Kansas City.

Competitors at Smokefest needed to prepare four kinds of meat for judging: pork, beef brisket, pork ribs and chicken. There were two divisions of competition at this year’s event. One, Mustang Territory, was open to teams from a seven-county area around Lyon County. The second division was open for all teams.

Novices and experts were both represented at the competition Friday. For some local teams, the fun of the experience was part of the reason they came to Smokefest.

“This will be our fourth year,” said John Pollock, who was trying to set up an awning for his team, the “Chump Daddies.” He said the five-member team enjoyed some of the camaraderie among local barbecue enthusiasts.

“What I really enjoy is seeing some of the same people year after year,” Pollock said.

Other teams were much more practiced in competing. Ted Moonen said the “Shiggin’ and Grinnin'” team from Delano competes in about 15 barbecue contests a year.

“(Smokefest) is a good contest for us. We always really enjoy it,” said Jeff Vanderlinde, one of Moonen’s teammates. He said Smokefest was where the team won its first-ever grand championship.

Smokefest teams gathered on Friday had their workstations decked out with banners, or wore matching team apparel. Some had custom-built smokers. One smoker, built by Keith Nelson of the “Holy Smokers” team, was decorated with horseshoes and a dinner bell.

“It was all developed around the bell. Once I had the bell, I figured out the rest,” Nelson said, laughing.

“We’ve been making barbecue for a long time, but this is our first competition,” said Nelson’s teammate Dave Benoit. The team had traveled to Marshall from Willmar to be part of Smokefest. “It’s not just about the competition,” Benoit said of attending Smokefest. “Although there’s certainly a lot of competition going on.”

Schwarz and his teammates said that, although they hoped to step up their game at this year’s competition, having a good time was a big part of Smokefest.

“We’re just hanging out hand having fun,” said Matt Weller.

“It’s like tailgating, but without the football game,” said Jeremy Gossen.