If you observe smoke rising from Pennsylvania Avenue this weekend, don’t fret. The clouds are not the result of an electrical malfunction at the White House. They are the hovering, sweet-smelling woodsmoke incense from about 50 teams competing in the 19th annual Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle.
With more than 100,000 attendees the past several years, the battle is one of the largest barbecue events in the nation. Although the vast majority of teams are from the Washington area, the contest draws some top national competitors, including Richmond’s Cool Smoke, Illinois’s Bar-B-Quau and Georgia’s Jack’s Old South, whose captain is cookbook author and TLC “BBQ Pitmasters” star Myron Mixon, the self-described “winningest man in barbecue.” Saveur magazine this year named it one of America’s best barbecue competitions.
That’s a long way from its humble 1992 origins in the parking lot of RFK Stadium. That year, about 15,000 people came to watch a cook-off between Republicans and Democrats — and to meet Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, who autographed copies of his “Barbeque’n with Bobby Seale” cookbook.
A year later, the battle moved to the Georgetown waterfront. Two years after that, it landed at its current location on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
Area teams performed well last year in the sauce categories. DCFD Firefighting BBQ Team took first in the officially judged competition while Pork Barrel BBQ took the top prize in the People’s Choice contest. This year, the winner of the inaugural Smoke Signals Barbecue Sauce Recipe contest, Zora Margolis, will enter her sauce and see how it stacks up against the best.
A notable vendor this year is the food truck, BBQ Bus. We like that, as big as the battle has gotten with more corporate sponsors than a Nascar driver (full disclosure: The Washington Post is one of those sponsors), a small, local business — a food truck, no less — can still get into the whole shebang. Now, if only they’d can the “Safeway” part of the name. It’s dopey.
Other major barbecue contests have corporate sponsors, too, but they have much cooler names: Memphis in May and American Royal, for instance. True, one of the biggies does put the sponsor’s name in the title. But a) it’s shorter, and b) well, it’s just flat-out cooler: The Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational.
‘Course, I still haven’t acclimated myself to the commonplace corporate-sponsored sports stadiums. I cringe when I hear “Cinergy Field” and “Minute Maid Park.” The way I figure it, one of these days, they’re going to tag the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial with bank and liquor and auto company logos.
While the battle, in some ways, epitomizes the corporatization of barbecue, it also somehow — and laudably — retains the flavor of a smalltown, makeshift carnival. The moon bounces and trampolines and the Lego Experience tour and the NBA interactive exhibit give it that whizbang county-fair vibe. CNN recently dubbed it one of the top 5 “Can’t Miss Summer Festivals.”
That’s partly because the battle is an extravaganza. “It is more than just a barbecue contest,” says spokesperson and co-organizer Suzanne Tubis. “Because it happens right in the middle of Washington D.C., people want to have a lot of action.”
So action they will get — much of it supplied by locals.
Thirty bands will perform, including D.C.’s godfather of go-go Chuck Brown . Others include a top-notch line-up of locals EU, Junkyard Band, Mambo Sauce, Honor by August, along with such national acts as New Orleans’s rollicking Cowboy Mouth. New this year is a Gospel Brunch on Sunday morning with live performances by local artists.
The brunch is just one of several major changes organizers have made this year. For ‘cue heads, the biggest is doing away with Memphis in May rules. In the past, Saturday’s competitions were judged by Kansas City Barbecue Society rules, which are blind, and Sunday’s utilized Memphis in May regs, which include on-site judging. To streamline the event, the battle went solely with the largest barbecue-contest sanctioning body in the nation, KCBS.
Another big change is the addition of the BBQ Bazaar Marketplace, which will include a hot sauce and spices pavilion with free samples; local vendors such as cast-iron grate add-on firm, ManGrate, and seasoning company Todd’s Dirt; cooking demonstrations; and a signing by Mixon of his new cookbook “Smokin’ with Myron Mixon.”
Also new this year:
* DC Lottery will do a first-ever live big-money drawing.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the Chinet People’s Choice contest, which allows the public to vote on their favorite sauce and vendor. It is the one opportunity for attendees to have a sample and a say.
It’s counterintuitive, but you don’t get much barbecue at a barbecue contest. Because it would be too expensive for competitors to make enough samples to feed 100,000-plus people, and because health codes don’t permit direct selling to the public without cooks jumping through a zillion hoops, there is barbecue, barbecue everywhere, but not a bite to eat — unless you buy it from an approved vendor. There will be 20 of those, so, while you won’t taste the champion’s ‘cue, you certainly won’t go hungry.
Another thing that won’t change — Safeway’s charitable donation to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington. Over the years, the battle has raised $1.2 million for the clubs. Which almost makes me feel like a heel for bashing the cook-off’s name. Almost.
Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the gate. The battle is on Pennsylvania Avenue between 9th and 14th streets NW, Saturday and Sunday. Winners will be announced at 7 p.m. Sunday.
If you could re-name the battle, what would you call it? Or do you think Smoke Signals is just being curmudgeonly and the name is fine as is?
New ’Cue Alert: A couple of months ago, native Washingtonian and longtime neighborhood barbecuer Bufus Buchanan opened a stand at The Wharf. It’s called King Ribs. From a gigantic rig that a friend welded for him, he serves pork ribs, steak, chicken, kielbasa, turkey thighs and baked potatoes.
Located at 7th Street and Maine Avenue in Southwest, King Ribs is open from 10 a.m. until he’s sold out, generally mid-afternoon, Thursday through Sunday.
America’s Best Barbecue?: In its July issue, Bon Appetit magazine anoints newly opened Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, as the best ‘cue restaurant in the nation. Let the debate begin…er, continue.
Send barbecue tips, suggestions, news, opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Smoke Signals on Twitter.