On either side of a long street, booths are set up with sellers hawking their wares. You'll hear laughter and a hundred conversations as people walk down the crowded street or stand in line at the booths.
Imagine a midway that looks very much like a county fair only instead of having rides, baking contests, and pens with animals, at a rib rib-cook, everyone is selling meat.
Pork ribs, beef ribs, brisket, turkey drumsticks, barbecue chicken, pulled pork, and hot links.
Ok, that's a slight exaggeration. Not everyone is selling meat.
You can buy sides that go with meat: cole slaw and baked beans and you can buy lots of fried things--thick fried onion rings, zucchini strips, hush puppies, garlic fries, and potato chips piled high on a plate looking very much like a small mountain.
For those watching their diets, there is fresh fruit on a stick and freshly squeezed lemonade. If you want something sweet, there are booths selling fennel cakes, shaved ice and chocolate dipped fruit on sticks.
But you don't come to a rib-cook because you want to eat all that other stuff. You come to a cook-off because you love to eat meat and you love barbecue.
You might see people in PETA t-shirts and you'd scratch your head wondering why animal rights advocates would be here, but then you read the fine print and you'd understand. At a rib cook-off, PETA means "People for the Eating of Tasty Animals."
In early September I was on assignment for Peter Greenberg to be a judge at John Ascuaga's Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off, my second year and the Cook-Off's 21st.
Over six days, the Nugget's rib-cook attracts over 500,000 people, who come together for a celebration of good times and good food.
There are families everywhere you turn. Toddlers in strollers. Babes in arms. Teenagers who might not otherwise hang out with their parents are happily comparing notes about a favorite rib cooker or fiery barbecue sauces, like Johnson BBQ's ThermoNuclear or Rasta Joe's Island Fire sauce.
The Nugget adds to the fun with bands playing day and night. The sound of rock and country music drifts through the air, combining with the sweet smoke that pours off the wood burning grills as the racks of ribs are coated with thick brush-strokes of barbecue sauce.
People find space on the picnic benches that have been set up in the shade. Mostly though, impromptu picnics happen as soon as the people get their ribs. They can't wait. The ribs are that good.
People who come to a rib cook-off don't just come to have a quick bite to eat. Not a chance. They've come to sample and compare.
If you strike up a conversation with people as they eat their ribs, you'll find out that this isn't their first cook-off. Odds are they've attended the Best of the West before and they've come back to enjoy the ribs from their favorite cookers.
They'll eat a basket of ribs. Lick their fingers. Grab an ice cold lemonade. Walk around a bit. Listen to the music, maybe gamble a bit, then they're back out to the midway to try another cooker's ribs.
The conversations you'll hear as you walk down the midway are all about ribs and sauce. If there's inside-baseball talk, then at a cook-off, you'll hear inside-barbecue talk.
Which cookers are at the top of their game. Whose meat has the best balance of smoke and tenderness. Which rib has just the right edge of heat. There are comparisons between old favorites and new ones. Which sauces hit flavor out of the ballpark.
In addition to the judges ranking of the Best Ribs and Best Sauce, there's also a People's Choice award. People have their favorites and they lobby one another to promote the cookers they like.
Butch of Smack Your Lips BBQ is a favorite because he beat Bobby Flay on the Food Network's rib Throwdown. There are long lines in front of Rasta Joe's because who can resist barbecue with Jamaican flavors and heat? Last year's winner for best ribs, Bone Daddy's Bill Wall, has so many fans, they've started a Facebook page and he tweets to let people back home know what's happening each day at the cook-off.
The cookers are as enthusiastic about ribs as are the fans. They literally live, breath, and sleep dry rubs, sauces, and quality of meat. Of the 24 cookers in competition, 23 are on the road 4 months of the year.
From just before Memorial Day to just after Labor Day, the cookers criss-cross the United States in big rigs, pulling their mammoth smokers and barbecue grills. They move from competition to competition, selling their meats and sauces, going up again long-time competitors, and (hopefully) picking up more trophies along the way.
But even if they don't win, this is big business. Only a few of the cookers have restaurants. Most make their living doing catering and traveling the competitive barbecue circuit. In a down economy, where their catering business might be off because corporations don't have as much to celebrate and they've cut back on events, the cook-off business is as good as ever. Virginia Beach's Dan Johnson of Johnson's BBQ says, "People are staying local, enjoying themselves. The cook-offs are good for families. There are things for dads to do, moms too, and the kids get to play. There's lots to do."
The Nugget's Best of the West is a great example why business is so good. Where else can a family have so much fun for so little money?
There's no admission fee. The entertainment is free. Everyone is welcome to stop and listen to the bands that play day and night. A large crafts fair is set up nearby where you can shop for clothing, hand-made jewelry, household decorations, and toys. There's plenty to eat and drink. The most expensive plate of food is under $15.00. You're hanging out with family and friends.
So where do the big guys like to eat when they’re on the road?
Butch eats ribs from old friend Ray “Red” Allen Gill’s Razorback, stopping by Red’s place in Arkansas and when they’re at events competing against one another.
Peter and Roberta Rathmann of BJ's Nevada Barbecue Company--the only Sparks barbecue restaurant at the competition—-try small, family operations when they travel because they want to see what people like themselves are doing.
Joe Alexander of Rasta Joe’s likes Corky’s in Memphis, Tennessee for the pulled pork and ribs.
But surprisingly, what most cookers recommend isn’t what you’d think.
Most agree with Bill Wall who says, “The honest truth is I don’t eat a lot of barbecue. I love to visit and see barbecue places [when he’s traveling]. But when I’m going out to eat, I like Caesar salads and shrimp, a good pasta or a great piece of meat.”
Unlike Bill and the other cookers, I rarely get the chance to eat great ribs and I love them. So being a judge at the Best of the West is a great treat.
The tough part, though, is the waiting. The first rule of the contest is that no judge may eat a rib until the judging.
Walking past all those cookers, their grills ablaze, the smell of barbecue sauce and smoke in the air, is pure torture. Watching crowds of people eating baskets of ribs and licking thick, sweet sauce off their fingers, it takes all my self-control so I don't just reach over and grab one of those ribs and devour it on the spot.
But I’m true to my judge’s oath and I wait.
The tasting begins in hushed silence. The second rule of judging is “No talking.” In 40 minutes, each judge has to evaluate either 12 (the preliminary round) or 10 (the final round) ribs. Walking around the chafing dishes we solemnly nibble on a bone, evaluating each rib for appearance, tenderness, mouth feel, and taste (salty, sweet, and heat).
Some ribs I like right away. Others I’m convinced aren’t good. But in fairness I know that a cooker shouldn’t be judged on one rib alone. So it’s back around the table for a second tasting. I score each one. Then I go back a third time to confirm my favorites. I’m dying to know who I like, but all I know is a number.
After the judging we’re invited to a special area where the cookers bring their ribs to a large tent so it’s easier to try everyone’s ribs and sauces. Now I have the chance to put a face to a rib, so I methodically take one rib from each serving dish (if you’re keeping track that’s 24 ribs) and carefully write on the Styrofoam plate the name of the cooker. I take a bite out of each one but only eat the whole rib if it’s great.
By the end I think I have a pretty good idea which cookers made my favorite ribs. I keep it to myself because the results of the contest aren't announced until tomorrow.
When I go to bed that night, I go to sleep happy and very full. In four hours, I’ve eaten 30 ribs.
After about an hour, I wake up with terrible chest pains so bad I am convinced I am dying. I know I should call the front desk and ask them to call an ambulance, but the pain is intense, I can’t move a muscle.
Then I realize I'm not having a heart attack. It is heartburn. You can’t eat that many ribs and not pay the price.
But it was worth it