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"It's not rocket science. It's not saving lives. It's just barbecue," says Lonnie Smith of Bubba Grills, explaining why he has devoted his life to smoking pork and chasing trophies. "It's about food. It's about family."
Smith shouldn't sell himself short. While the Haddock, Ga., team — this year's grand champion of the 6th Annual Smoke On The Mountain state barbecue cook-off in Galax, held this past weekend — looks at cooking as fun, there's some sweet science involved.
Cooks like Smith, who travel the country on the barbecue circuit's smoky trail, have to know physics, thermodynamics, chemistry, aesthetics, marketing, public speaking and especially the anatomy of the swine.
Dozens of these professors of pork, mad scientists of meat, came to Galax over the weekend for the annual cooking competition.
They talk about what materials to burn to achieve the ideal temperatures to turn ribs, pork shoulders and whole hogs into delectable delights. There's a lot to know, like the fact that rain — which doused the event on Friday — can lower a smoker's temperature and make their work even more difficult.
Teams swear by their methods, and each will tell you their's is the best.
They go into great detail talking about wood and charcoal and how the smoke they produce changes the meat's flavor.
A couple of teams this year said they chop up an onion and toss it right into the fire box with the coals, where the heat releases that savory sweetness.
Barbecuing isn't like cooking a steak. A sirloin is already a fine cut of meat. The challenge in smoking — indeed, it's origin — is turning a lesser cut into a culinary masterpiece.
So why put yourself through this?
When the chefs start handing out fall-off-the-bone samples on Saturday, after up to 16 hours of slow smoking, the answer is mouth-wateringly clear.
The event is sponsored by the Twin County Regional Chamber of Commerce, with help from dozens of community donors. It has become the non-profit organization's only annual fundraiser.
This year, 15 teams competed in the professional categories and several more just entered the sauce contest or took a shot at running with the big hogs in the amateur "Patio Porker" division.
All had good things to say about Galax and its people. In fact, Keith Morris of Chop Shop Barbecue of Tom's River, N.J., told the event's organizers that he was amazed that people walking down the street smiled, waved and called the team by name.
Welcome to the South.
"They want to move here now," said event founder Ron Passmore of The Galax Smokehouse restaurant. "All the teams talk about how much they love the area and all stated that they would be back."
Since the beginning in 2005, Smoke On The Mountain has earned a reputation as the friendliest and best-run contest on the nationwide circuit. That pedigree attracted Randy McGee, president of the Memphis Barbecue Network, who came to see what all the fuss was about this year.
"We love coming here," said Malcolm Reed of Mississippi team Killer Hogs. "We put Galax first when we're booking our contests for the year," citing the hospitality of locals and the cool — to him, anyway —weather.
"You couldn't do a contest like this in Georgia or Mississippi this time of year," he tells a judge. "It would be too hot to sit outside at night and the mosquitoes would carry you off."
The calm, cool mountains draw cooks from all over.
They came from as far as New Jersey, Massachusetts and Vermont — not necessarily known as barbecue states in the Deep South or Midwest.
Brian Costello, of Sommerville, Mass.-based team Hang Out Artists, drove all the way down in an old green sedan with a smoker strapped to the top, just to cook some ribs.
"It's fun for us," Costello says, dusting the raw ribs with a shaker of spiced rub. "We take it seriously — but not too seriously."
Some teams are from right here. This year's Patio Porker winner was home-grown team Bobbi-Q, made up of Scott and Bobbi Honaker of Galax, who have been competing as amateurs at Smoke On The Mountain for several years.
From now on, they can't compete as amateurs again and must join the ranks of the pros.
Visitors to Smoke On The Mountain sampled barbecue by the handful, listened to live jam sessions by local bluegrass and old-time artists on the streets, perused vendors' booths and danced to tunes from DJ Janet Mullins and the Band of Oz.
Maybe it was the mellow '60s theme of the event — “Peace Out. Pig Out.” — that kept things laid-back this year, but there was far less stress behind the scenes, said Shannon Dalton, head of the Carroll County High School Interact Club, a battalion of polite, hard-working youths that help out every year.
The students keep things running smoothly for judge coordinator Carlene Poole, who keeps about 30 judges happy. Like the teams, they come from all over the country, paying their own way, just to taste some of the best food in the country.
It's a tough job — really.
They judge on site at the team's camps in downtown Galax, and taste "blind box" entries while sequestered in small rooms in the city office, transformed into BBQ HQ for the weekend.
They have to resist the urge to devour the entries, taking only small bites to discern whether the team has the right combination of smoke and seasoning.
Judge Al Crawford III sits down heavily, with a sigh, in his chair in the judges' chambers in the city office after judging pork shoulder.
Tough to pick a winner?
"No — I'm just full!" he says.
You have to pace yourself, says veteran judge Terri D'Amato.
After votes are tallied, Passmore and the chamber's board of directors join the event sponsors to hand out awards Saturday evening.
After that, beach music legends The Tams and the Showtime Band got attendees' feet moving at the outdoor stage set up on North Main Street.
A few days later, after several blocks of downtown Galax are reopened and clean — as if there hadn't been a few thousand people there — Passmore has time to reflect on the event.
"I'm very pleased with how it went. It was very smooth, and we had great participation from all over the country."
He said he appreciated the community's support, especially the city staff and the downtown merchants who have the contest right outside their front doors.
Besides raising money for the chamber's efforts to promote the area, there was another positive outcome this year. There was quite a bit of food left over, so the teams and the chamber donated it to Joy Ranch Christian School in Carroll County and the Hostel of the Good Shepherd homeless shelter in Galax.
Passmore also thanked "the small army" it takes to pull the event off each year, especially Chamber Executive Director Judy Brannock and her husband, Larry.
Also singled out for their efforts were Mark and Drew Burnett, a father-and-son team of volunteers who kept garbage picked up all weekend.
"They worked as hard or harder than anyone down there," Passmore said. "They made that trash disappear. It was like magic."
And just like magic, it was all gone by Sunday morning — in a puff of smoke.