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Grate Expectations

During sleepless, smoke-filled, weekend barbecue competitions, the meat gets all the TLC

Shane Hill’s competitive barbecue team is called The Burn Unit. At first glance, the team name seems like just a clever play on barbecue-related words, but the name also is a tribute to the people for whom the team raises money: burn victims and their families. The team also raises money for veterans and people afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder. The Burn Unit was founded in May 2013 and already has raised about $20,000 for charities. That’s a lot of brisket.

Welcome to the world of competitive barbecue in Texas, where men and women think nothing of staying up all night to perfect their ribs, brisket, sausage, chicken and beans; where the large barbecue pits can easily cost $4,000 to $8,000 or more; and where the competitive barbecue season runs from February to October—think spring training through the World Series, but with a lot more smoke.

Many of the teams, including The Burn Unit, support a specific charity. The Texas Firewalkers team supports victims of fire and other natural disasters. The Pit Stop BBQ team is a large organization that includes members of other barbecue teams who join together to compete at the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo in Austin every March. Pit Stop raises money—more than $150,000 in the past five years—for college scholarships given by Rodeo Austin.

Each competitor has his or her own reasons for entering the weekend cook-offs, usually sanctioned by the Lone Star Barbecue Society. Events are held in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico. Some cooks are there for the charitable cause. Others are drawn by the camaraderie, good food and drink, and relaxed atmosphere. Still others want a formal way to prove their recipe is the best one around. “Wowing them with one bite” is how competitor Mike Sargent Jr. puts it.

For Hill, the motivation comes from a personal tragedy. On February 18, 2010, Hill was a victim of the attack at the IRS building in North Austin, when Andrew Joseph Stack III flew a small plane into the seven-story office building. Flames engulfed the building, killing an IRS employee and the pilot.

Hill, who works for the state of Texas, sustained second- and third-degree burns on his hands, face, neck and back. In the aftermath of the fire, he suffered from PTSD, and his family felt the financial and emotional strain of the disaster. “When I got burned and injured, my buddies, our community and our church supported my wife Rachel and me financially and in other ways,” Hill says. “This is a way for me to give back.”

About 25 people are part of Hill’s barbecue team. They arrive in RVs to spend the night, hauling in coolers full of meat and groceries. Generally, the teams set up Thursday night, and judging takes place on Saturdays. The team has sponsors, which pay for the meat and other ingredients. The team spends about $400 every two weeks for competition entry fees, food, drink, foil and other supplies, says Scott Ellis, a member of The Burn Unit.

Brett Boren is a barbecue cook-off team of one—Republic BBQ. Boren’s day job is working as an inside sales account manager at Dell. He’s been competing since 2005. Boren is already more than halfway through the 27 barbecue competitions he plans to enter in 2014.

At the Rotary Club of Hutto’s cook-off in Central Texas, April 25 and 26, Boren readies his entries (beef brisket, chicken, ribs) with the skill of long practice. On Saturday morning, with judging just a few hours away, his eyes are red from the smoke and staying up all night.

Boren’s dream is to own his own barbecue trailer in two years. His face lights up as he talks: “I’d have it open four days a week, play good Texas music, serve barbecue, beer at night. That’s the goal.”

The secret to excellent barbecue is “TLC,” Boren says. “You got to stay up a long time, watch the meat, watch the reaction. Is it folding because it’s too hot? Is it seeping juice? You have to have patience.”

The biggest challenge in competitive barbecue, says Brenda Sargent, the Lone Star Barbeque Society judge who supervised the competition in Hutto, is being able to adjust to what judges in each area are looking for. “In Hutto, the judges are most familiar with barbecue cooked over apple wood or oak wood,” says Brenda Sargent, Mike Sargent’s mother. “In West Texas, the judges are accustomed to food cooked over mesquite wood.”

Each spring, at the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo, the roughly 50 members of the Pit Stop BBQ team (which includes Boren, The Burn Unit and the Texas Firewalkers, who join together with other cooks for the rodeo event) set up a 10,000-square-foot tent to feed hundreds of people and raise thousands of dollars in scholarship money.

James Chelf, an electrician from Lakeway, is the president of Pit Stop BBQ. “This spring, we used nine pits and cooked 250 briskets, 1,500 racks of ribs, 1,000 whole chickens and 800 pounds of sausage,” says Chelf, a member of Pedernales Electric Cooperative. “We put it up on Wednesday, started cooking on Thursday and didn’t stop until Sunday morning. We were cooking 24 hours a day.”

The best part of it, he said, is knowing they are raising money to help deserving students go to college. The good food and fellowship might be the next best part of competitive barbecuing.

“This is just a big family,” Kevin Creamer says of his fellow Pit Stop team members. The manufacturing engineer from Elgin is a member of Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative. “It’s a family that always gets along,” he says. “If you need something, just call and they’ll help you. We are always looking for a reason to get together and cook.”

Michele Chan Santos lives in Austin.