As the Battle prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary this weekend, a look at its evolution reveals that a lot has changed over the years in this town, and in barbecue.
Once a novelty, barbecue competitions are now commonplace. There are hundreds of them and even a cable TV show about them called “BBQ Pitmasters” on Destination America. They are no longer just summertime outings, but occur year-round. Each competition pays money. The total Battle payout in cash and prizes is $40,000. But the Battle’s real prize is that its winner (called a grand champion) qualifies to compete in two of the circuit’s most prestigious contests: the Kansas City American Royal World Series of Barbecue and the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue.
America had elected Bill Clinton president the year before the first Battle. He brought his Falstaffian appetite for all things Southern to Washington. His vice president, Al Gore, a former senator from Tennessee, loved that state’s fabled barbecue and had attended the granddaddy of barbecue competitions, the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
Co-founder Allen Tubis remembers that barbecue was in the air.
“A lot of people from Tennessee were coming in [to Washington],” Tubis told me in a recent interview. “We noticed that everybody was talking about barbecue. People were saying they can’t find good barbecue or, ‘There’s this place. . . .’
“Barbecue was threaded into their lives,” Tubis said. “They were so passionate about it. I had never seen anything like that before.”
Tubis and his sister, Janice Gary, and her husband, Curt Gary, decided to organize a barbecue cook-off and called it the National Capital Barbecue Battle. “We are very close to the Mason-Dixon line, the great divide,” Tubis said. “The idea was, ‘Let’s go with the idea of it being about the regional differences, a friendly battle of who’s got the best.’ ” Forty-seven teams competed; 9,000 people attended. “One guy, we had to pour water over him,” Tubis said. “It was that hot.”
The next year, the contest changed to the first weekend of summer and moved to the Georgetown waterfront Safeway sponsored the event, and has kept its name prominently slapped on it ever since.
The Democrats won in each of the first two years, and the RNC declined to participate the third year, Tubis said. “They said they didn’t have time,” he said. “I don’t know.” Republicans and Democrats haven’t formally faced off in this arena since.
The event was growing so large that it had to find a larger home. In 1997, the Battle moved to Pennsylvania Avenue, where it has returned each year.