SOS / SMOKEFEST: Fire it up

MARSHALL – It’s a lot of work, and it all comes down to a judge’s first taste of barbecue. But competitors at the Smokefest barbecue competition said it’s also a chance to meet friends and have a good time.

“There’s so much activity, and so many people you know,” said Marshall resident Brian Brandt, one of the returning competitors at this year’s event.

Smokefest kicked off Friday at Southwest Minnesota State University, as part of Sounds of Summer. Teams from around the southwest Minnesota region, as well as from around the Midwest, got ready to barbecue chicken, brisket, ribs and pulled pork for tasting on Saturday. Smokefest is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, and the grand champion in the contest qualifies for a drawing to advance to the Jack Daniels Invitational barbecue competition in Tennessee.

On Friday afternoon, competitors were busy setting up grills and smokers, gathering supplies and seasoning cuts of meat.

“It’s kind of a brine,” said Justin Matheson of the liquid mixture he was injecting into a pork shoulder. The brine and other seasonings help to bring out the best flavor in the barbecue, he said. It’s important, because the judges don’t get a big taste of each entry.

“You’ve got to win with only one bite,” Matheson said.

Matheson said it would take about 12 hours to cook the pork. Most of the actual barbecuing for the competition wouldn’t begin until later Friday night, competitors said.

Smokefest was more than just competition, however. Participants said they like the atmosphere and seeing friends.

Brian Brandt said his and Karl Porisch’s barbecue team, the Mustang Sally Tailgating Association, has been competing since 2007.

“Our first contest was here at Smokefest,” Brandt said, and the team’s name shows SMSU Mustang pride.

“We both had backyard barbecue experience,” Porisch said, though competition barbecue ended up teaching them a lot. After their first outing, the team went on to do several competitions a year in Minnesota and South Dakota.

“When you do one, you’re hooked,” Brandt said.

The team’s work has paid off at competitions – Mustang Sally won grand champion at the Great Northern BBQ in Brainerd last weekend, Brandt said.

Porisch said this year’s Smokefest was bittersweet, in a way – after this summer, he’ll be retiring from competition barbecue. But getting to socialize with guests and fellow barbecuers on Friday was still a high point of competition.

“It’s been fun,” Porisch said.