When the breeze blows in from the fairgrounds in mid-July, it carries tangy BBQ aromas that have blown into Walworth County from all compass points. Smokers glowing. Giant banners towering two stories extolling who's-the-champ-where. Appetites tempted and sated.
Last year was the inaugural Elkhorn Ribfest, drawing in the best pitmasters from coast-to-coast. While they bear fun nicknames like Meathead and Smokey, the competition’s as intense as the heat radiating from the hardwood coals. They give their all. Just not their secrets.
Ask any of the dozen-plus competitors what's the secret to their creations. Heck, ask all of them. You'll hear it's the wood, it's the temperature, it's the vinegar, it's one spice or sugar versus another. You'll never get the specific quantity or temperature or blend of delicious that added a trophy to a packed display table. You will get the satisfaction of having tried them all or as many as your stomach would hold.
Here's a heads-up: If you're not up on BBQ, get ready for a culinary education like none other. The serious business in the pit earns bragging rights and keeps the crews hopscotching across the nation. They're judged by a panel – and by people's choice – on more than just flavor. You'll hear words like bark (the 'crust' of the rib) and smoke ring (the pink band just above the bone) and tongue (the juicy balance between dry and mushy). Carolina ribs (tart and vinegary, heat, no sweet) stand toe-to-toe with Memphis ribs (sweet, dry rubbed, and anything but dry).
Five more Ribfest rookie tips:
It is a Ribfest… but chicken and beef brisket are also on the menu at many of the competitor booths.
If you really dig what you ate, let the pit master know it.
Bring towelettes. Lots of them. The authentic way to eat BBQ is with your fingers, and real pros wear it on their chins.
Remember, the proceeds go to charity.
Bring a friend. Or several. That’s the best way to indulge in as many creations as you can. You'll get through a lot more of your own judging. You and your taste buddies can compare notes, crown a winner and share sauces.
Even the competitors are willing to share sauces… bottled, of course.
Photo by Brandon Bourdages, used with permission.