The booths surrounded the perimeter of the parking lot, the center area was used as a seating area, circulation and home to the “beach” which was a large area of trucked-in sand.
Just like CHEF’S IN SHORTS, I attended this event with my former boss, Greg, who is a BBQ lover too. Also as was the case with CHEF’S IN SHORTS, Greg was the one who found out about this event. This was a pay-as-you go event where you paid a small $5.00 admission fee to get in and then you paid for what you eat or drank. CHEF’S IN SHORTS was a single admission and then it was all you can eat. The MO here was the booths offered sampler sized plates of their various wares. Some offered a few specialties while others offered a full range of BBQ goodies. You could buy 3 or 4 bone rib sampler plates, small pulled pork sandwiches, and other similarly sized portions of the various foods. The event was also a competition where the attendees and some judges picked winners in various categories. On the BBQ front there were booths representing BBQ restaurants and or competition teams from around the US and there was even a team from Australia. The US participants were two from Texas, as well as Memphis, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Boston. The local team was Firefly’s who were also at CHEF’S IN SHORTS. The booths were arrayed around the perimeter of one of Wonderland’s race tracks large parking lots. The middle area was reserved for circulation, plus tables and chairs, as well as a large area of beach sand to play in. In addition to the BBQ related booths there were other vendors selling things like pizza, hamburgers, ice cream and several strategically located tents selling beer. The tents for the beer vendors were a smart idea, where you could wait in line out of the direct hot sun.
I discovered these festivals are part of a parallel circuit to the sanctioned BBQ competition circuit. Most of the booths sported plaques for various festivals where the booth’s owners won the peoples choice competition of a particular festival.
We arrived about 15 minutes before the gates opened at 11:00 AM. The weather was to be hazy hot and humid, but when we arrived fog had rolled in from the ocean and the fog bank hovered just outside the edge of the site. By the time we got through the line to get in, the fog bank had dissipated. While waiting in line we discussed a new strategy to survive this event. At CHEF’S IN SHORTS we didn’t pace ourselves properly and ran out of gas prematurely. This time we were determined to sample a wide variety of food before it was time to quit. I had the additional “problem” of being expected for dinner at 5:00PM at my parents, where my mom was making one of my favorite meals. Had to leave room for that. What we decided to do was split a plate at each booth, buying one of each type plate for the two of us. This strategy also allowed us to divide and conquer: One of us would get in the line and order the sampler plates we’d chosen to try while the other waited in the lines at the nearby beer tent. Once out of the lines we’d meet back at a predetermined seating area, where we’d divide up the bounty. This is where we ran into our only difficulties. Some of the food was not always easy to cut apart with the plastic knives and forks we’d been given. Actually there was also the issue of how to divide rib samplers containing an odd number of ribs. Calling it a problem is an exaggeration. We solved things easily, one of us would get the extra rib and the other would get more pulled pork or brisket. This divide and conquer method also cut down the amount of time we spent in lines since we were able to cover two lines at once.
Signs of the Times: Some amusing signs at one of the booths.
We had a great time this day too. By pacing ourselves we managed to hit all of the BBQ booths except Firefly’s, which we reluctantly sacrificed to be able to sample all of the other booths. We already knew we liked Firefly’s and had just sampled their goods at CHEF’S IN SHORTS two weeks prior. We had many plates of ribs, and pulled pork, plus some pulled chicken, BBQ Beans, spicy BBQ beans, burnt ends and brisket. Though it was a total coincidence, we saved the best for last and also had a “Good to be the King” moment in the process. We just happened to start at the South end of the parking lot and worked our way North. As a result the last BBQ booth we had left to visit was the Willingham’s booth from Memphis, that served Memphis dry-rub ribs. For those of you that don’t know, Memphis dry rub ribs are grilled and do not use a wet sauce at all, just a dry rub. These ribs looked and smelled so good coming hot off the grill, we broke from our tradition and ordered a 5-bone plate for each of us. We were lucky enough to find one of the two seats at a table, because by 2:30 the place was packed. One bite of these wonderful dry-rubbed ribs told us these were the best ribs of the day. They were hot, spicy and had a slightly crispy skin which gave a satisfying crunch as you bit into them. These ribs were by far the best of the day and as I read in the paper the next day, the judges also agreed with out assessment.
We’d hit the BBQ booths, we’d just had our best ribs of the day and the storm clouds were rolling in - our work here was done.
We really wanted to finish with another beer to go with these ribs, but looking at the long lines at the various beer tents we decided it wasn’t worth the wait. We wanted these ribs fresh off the grill. Then our “Good to be the King” moment happened: The beer came to us. Due to the large crowds, the vendors had pressed some portable beer carts into service. Picture a large orange plastic cooler, like an Igloo Cooler, big enough to hold a small keg. The cooler had 4 wheels and on one end there was a raised handle so the cooler could be pushed around. Coming out of the top of the cooler was a beer tap head, plus some bins attached to the top holding beer cups. But imagine longing for one last beer and giving up on the idea due to the long lines and then suddenly a young lady wheels up to your table with a portable kegeraor to fulfill that wish. So we enjoyed one last cold beer to go with the best ribs of the day. There were predictions for severe thunderstorms for later that day and the sky was starting to get dark, so between the impending weather and our full stomachs, we knew it was time to go. The dry rub ribs we’d just finished were so good, I really wanted more. But I still had supper at my parents to deal with, so I had to quit. But I just knew I was going to have to make some dry rub ribs the next weekend.
I couldn’t wait for the next weekend to make some of my own Memphis dry rub ribs.
This day was really quite fun and you should keep an eye out for something similar in your area. It seems there is almost a parallel to the sanctioned BBQ cooking circuit with these BBQ fests. This was a festival and although there was a judging by the public and judges, this was not a sanctioned competition. I know Firefly’s does booths at all kinds of local festivals and they participate in local and national cooking competitions. So as I mentioned I think there are two parallel and sometimes overlapping circuit. There are the sanctioned competitions and then events like this one that is a festival. The various BBQ teams all had their own custom booths, many laden with plaques documenting the awards the the team had won at various festivals. These festivals seem to take place all over the US. So definitely keep an eye out for something similar in your area. Good food and good fun, plus you may discover some new BBQ meals you want to try at home.
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