If you enjoy BBQ and you live in or near Central Florida, consider yourself blessed. There are a lot of Florida BBQ Association (FBA) and Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) contests throughout the year for you, and you can find out about them from the websites I’ve listed. If you’ve never been to one they can be a little hard to figure out. Let me try to help.
Parking can be a challenge, but don’t let it be. At Smoke on the Water this weekend in Winter Haven, they have free satellite parking. That is the way to go. A free shuttle service will be running back and forth all weekend. Look for the Satellite Parking signs on Havendale Boulevard. This is a great way to avoid the stress of finding a spot to park.
It is important to understand that the majority of contests are organized and put on by volunteers, and they are usually raising money for local charities. If you’re not sure and want to know, ask someone or check their website. If you’re asked to pay for parking or to pay to get in, know that it is likely benefiting a local charity. And helping those in need is a good thing. That said, the majority are free to enter.
Now you’re inside the gate, and the wonderful smells of hickory smoke, juicy pork and chicken, and succulent beef are filling the air. Your stomach rumbles and you’re ready to eat. The first thing you’ll want to do is buy some of the designated money/currency for the event. Since most are fundraisers, most make you pay for everything you buy in “_______ – Bucks”. The blank could be PIG, BBQ, or anything else. For now we’ll call them BBQ Bucks. Find the area where they are being sold and buy some. It is $1 for 1 BBQ Buck. Vendors are not allowed to take your cash money, they must take BBQ Bucks. The vendors turn in their BBQ Bucks at the end of the event and get paid $0.80 on the dollar. This is one way the charities make money from the event. BBQ Bucks are non-refundable so keep that in mind.
With your bucks in hand, it’s time to start sampling the foods now. Sometimes there are literally dozens and dozens of choices, like at Lakeland Pig Fest or Winter Haven’s Smoke on the Water. Sometimes there are only 5 or 6 choices. Know that some vendors will be much, much better than others. Pitmasters love to show off their accomplishments with trophies and/or banners on display. Unfortunately not all vendors are 100% honest with their advertising. Just because the signs are 75′ up in the air, doesn’t mean their food is great. So who do you go to? Ask around. Ask the other teams who aren’t selling their food where they would go eat, and who they would avoid. They know, and they will be honest with you. Life’s too short for bad BBQ. Educate yourself on where to spend your BBQ Bucks.
Besides great food, there may also be live music, craft vendors, car shows, cornhole tournaments, cooking demos, water ski shows, seaplane rides, auctions, 50/50 raffles, and who knows what else. BBQ contests usually offer All-American fun stuff to do and see. Make sure you get around to see everything. BBQ contests give the host towns a chance to shine and celebrate their community.
If you have the time, stick around until 5pm Saturday and watch the BBQ awards show, usually at the main stage. For most teams, this is the reason they are at the contest. Teams can spend anywhere from $900 – $1500 and up to enter a single contest. Most are on-sight for a minimum of 24 hours and up to 60 hours. A contest is a major investment of time and money. The teams turn in chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket at predetermined times. Tables of certified judges score the entries in a double blind format, so they don’t know whose food they are judging. The highest scores for each category win money and trophies. The team with the highest total score of all categories among the teams wins Grand Champion (GC). The second highest score wins Reserve Grand Champion (RGC). Doing well in one category is nice, but being consistent in every category and winning GC is the ultimate. This usually qualifies you for the big national invitational contests and is quite an accomplishment. It’s a long standing tradition in the FBA that the winner buys pizza for everyone Saturday evening. The Saturday night get together is the best part of the weekend for a lot of the teams.
I hope this will help you enjoy the next BBQ contest you visit. The teams and certainly the organizers and charities are happy and thankful you’ve come out to help support the community. And the fact that we get to enjoy BBQ, America’s original cuisine, makes it awesome.