Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The American Royal Barbeque Championship

One of the great joys of being a foodie is exploring the traditions and foods of new regions and cultures. On moving to Kansas City all I knew of the region was its reputation for and near obsession with great barbeque. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that this obsession reached the extent of the American Royal Barbeque Championship. This past weekend I had the opportunity to step behind the scenes of the world’s largest barbeque competition and experience true Kansas City Barbeque at its finest.

The American Royal, known as the “World Series of Barbeque” features over 500 teams competing throughout four days for top honors in categories such as “Brisket,” “Chicken,” “Ribs,” “Sides,” and “Deserts”. Teams and individual competitors set up camp in a vast community of smoking pits and eating parties, filling the huge parking areas of the Kemper Arena in west Kansas City. Motor homes, trailers and tents surround the pit allowing teams to keep 24 hour cooking schedules. Each cut of meat is seasoned in highly guarded, top secret blends, placed on the heat at according to a carefully crafted schedule. Temperature and color are monitored closely throughout the lengthy cooking process and then the meat is pulled from the heat at precisely the right temperature and time. This precision barbeque timing leaves just enough time for a team member to rush the entry to the drop off tables for judging. Each entry must arrive at the drop off tables at a preset time and the chaos of the “drop off” is often as exciting to watch as the cooking itself. Tucked away behind a screen of curtains, teams of six judges each conducted blind tastings of each category, awarding 15 places in each of the four categories as well as Second, Third and Fourth Runners Up, Reserve Grand Champion and Grand Champion who receives $12,500 and an automatic invitation to next year’s event.

As a foodie it was deeply gratifying to spend time learning about and experiencing the rich barbeque culture of this region. The small glimpses I had both in front of and behind the scenes deepened my knowledge and appreciation of mid-western and southern cuisine. The chefs and cooks I met were gracious and kind, their barbeque was absolutely delicious and long after I had returned home I could still smell the rich smoke filled air of the American Royal.

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