When I call Carolyn Wells, she is — where else? — at a barbecue contest. Wells is one of the three co-founders and the longtime executive director of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, known more commonly as KCBS.
The organization provides standardized rules and trains judges for adjudicating the meats at barbecue competitions. KCBS is, by far, the largest group of its kind.
First conceived in 1985 over “adult beverages,” as Wells puts it, the nonprofit KCBS debuted the following year and has grown from a handful of people who judged a single contest to a membership of around 15,000 worldwide that sanctions 400 events per year.
This year marks the organization’s silver anniversary. To celebrate the occasion, KCBS published The Kansas City Barbeque Society Cookbook, 25th anniversary edition.
With the prestigious American Royal World Series of Barbecue taking place in Kansas City this weekend — an event that KCBS sanctions, by the way — Smoke Signals thought it would be a good time to check in with Wells about the group and the ever-expanding sport of competitive barbecue. Edited excerpts follow:
Jim Shahin: Where am I reaching you?
Carolyn Wells: I’m in Decatur, Ala., on the Tennessee River, for the 17th annual Riverfest barbecue contest.
JS: You attend a lot of contests.
CW: About 30 a year.
JS: What makes one different from another?
CW: They just have to find their own voice. This one is right on the river. It has great music.
JS: What are some of the other differences?
CW: Southerners, they all try to out-nice each other. So there are Friday night dinners. Last night, we had fried catfish, shrimp. In Louisiana, you get etouffee, gumbo, jambalaya. Up North and in the Midwest, they don’t generally do that.
Wildwood [in New Jersey] is on the boardwalk, so it has the ocean and rides. In California, they’re often music festivals.
JS: What do you make of the Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle, here in Washington?
CW: D.C.’s is a street fair. There is so much activity. It’s a little abnormal. It is a wonderful fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club.
JS: Barbecue competitions have grown a lot over the years since KCBS was founded.
CW: The rapid growth of contests occurred after 9/11. Matter of fact, this contest [in Decatur], I drove to, because the planes weren’t flying.
Everybody was in shock. Everybody wanted normalcy in their life.
These contests gave people a way to gather as a community. It’s about food, family and friends.
JS: What changes have you observed?
CW: The rigs used to be simple, and the meats were not as sweet. Now we have “ribsicles,” with sweet glaze. Teams are doing things with layers of flavor. Now, you bite into it, you get a sweet taste, then a mild heat that comes on a minute later and you think, ‘Wow. So, they have made it into a science.’
JS: Will you hang up the tongs anytime soon?
CW: There are a hundred other things I want to do. A museum. I want to tell the story of people and their passion of this American culinary technique. A book, mp3s, every known media.
JS: So apparently you think the future of barbecue, and these contests, has not peaked.
CW: The [contest] calendar used to be from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Now it is year-round. There is a contest in California that goes from the last day of the year to the first day of the year. There’s a contest in Lakeland, Ga., in January and one in Alabama in December.
JS: Do you have a favorite?
CW: I love all of it. Being a daughter of the South, I’m probably partial to pulled pork. I love ribs, I don’t care if they’re wet or dry. The beauty of being in K.C. is that if it moves, we cook it.
JS: What’s next for KCBS?
CW: We’re trying to be open to helping more and more people enjoy the outdoor living lifestyle. Barbecue is truly America’s cuisine. I feel fortunate to be doing what I’m doing.