When it comes to pig credentials, Virginia's got 'em.
The state is home to the world's largest pork processor, Smithfield Foods, whose 750,000 sows produce about 12 million hogs a year. The United States' first exports of pork were dispatched from Virginia's shores in 1799. And the word "Virginia" is affixed to the word "ham" on menus worldwide.
But there is a glaring gap in this swine subculture that is all the more conspicuous for a Southern state: Virginia isn't really into barbecue.
Sure, Virginians eat it, but Virginia borrows other states' traditions (tomato-based Texas style or extra spicy North Carolina style), and it doesn't have the "critical mass of barbecue cooks" that you get in the deeper South, said John T. Edge, an expert on Southern food culture. It also hasn't had a major state barbecue event around which to rally -- perhaps until now.
Hoping to rev up Virginia's barbecue scene, a Fredericksburg restaurateur has launched a state barbecue championship, with the winner representing the Old Dominion at what many consider the main national competition, Memphis in May (location and time of year obvious). Rick Ivey, who is fighting Stafford County for the right to put a six-foot-tall fiberglass pig on his restaurant's roof, said that when he saw the now-defunct Richmond state championship foundering last year, he knew it was time to boost the profile of his contest and lobby to make it the state competition.
Over the years, the state had prominent cook-offs, but the Virginia Barbecue Fest, held Friday and yesterday at the Fredericksburg Fairgrounds for the second straight year, has the enthusiastic backing of the Virginia Pork Board -- plus commercial oomph. On hand were recently crowned barbecue world champion Myron Mixon, and a beer company's promotion of two semi trucks that opened into a 2,000-square-foot multimedia center.
But even as organizers talk about chitterlings (the old Southern delicacy of batter-fried pig intestines, pronounced "chitlins") and the time more than 200 years ago when Capt. Mallory Todd shipped hams from Virginia's coast to the West Indies, barbecue events such as this one are becoming less and less about regional food culture and more about selling grills and boosting an increasingly competitive meat industry.
In fact, the Virginia Barbecue Fest is part of a controlled competition circuit, which new barbecue festivals typically join. Most are sanctioned by either Memphis in May or the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which lay out requirements for which kinds of meat can be used and train judges in one-day sessions. Top competitors typically live on the circuit, meaning that local events are unlikely to be won by locals -- or local flavors.
"There's two kinds of barbecue -- good and bad, that's all that matters," said Mixon, 42, of Vienna, Ga. "You've got people moving from everywhere now, so barbecue truly isn't as regional as it once was." Mixon, who last month won the world championship and $22,000, is on the road 35 weekends a year to compete.
The real motor behind the national and state barbecue events is the meat industry, which has made billions in recent years as it sells increasingly elaborate grills and fancier brushes for sauces.
"The name of the game now is to get people to try new products, and everyone likes the idea of cooking outdoors now," said John H. Parker, executive director of the state pork board for the past 32 years.
Parker said he was excited about trying to establish the Fredericksburg championship to help boost Virginia pork, which "needs more attention," he said.
The pork, beef and chicken industries are becoming increasingly competitive as companies consolidate. The pork industry is making a profit for the first time in several years, said John Mabry, director of the Iowa Pork Industry Center at Iowa State University, located in the state that produces the most hogs. Yet while consumption of beef and pork has remained steady, chicken consumption has gone up, partially because of a perception that it is healthier, Mabry said.
Barbecue is one way to stretch the profits of processors and retailers. A producer who sells a pork shoulder to a retailer gets 79 cents a pound on average, Mabry said. But, "Put it into a good barbecue sauce and you can get $4 a pound," he said.
Overall, Mabry said, Virginia's pork business has shrunk over the past decade as agricultural land has been snapped up by new homeowners and developers.
That decline is part of why Parker is on a mission to remind Virginians of their roots: "Virginia is only known for three things: peanuts, tobacco and hams," he said.
But some people think the current crop of barbecue festivals across the country won't do much to promote the state's food culture -- in Virginia or elsewhere.
Edge, who runs a center at the University of Mississippi that studies regional food culture, sounds somewhat mournful that a cuisine deeply rooted in local traditions and kinship would be replaced by a homogenous circuit focused on making money.
"I have respect for the weekend-warrior barbecue guys, but I don't want the 80-year-old pitmaster who worked in smoky pits all his life to get lost in the cavalcades of festivals," said Edge, comparing barbecue in America to wine and cheese in France in terms of its indigenous power and pride. "Food is about building community."
Edge would like to see Virginians focus on promoting a truly local food: Brunswick stew, which is made most often now with chicken but which can include pork, beef or rabbit.
Ivey said he does want more Virginians to compete -- and promote local barbecue traditions, however limited they might be -- because competitions have gotten so specialized that average barbecue chefs might be intimidated. "It's our job to get more regional people involved," he said.
For now, Mixon is the sport's champion, and his goal is clear: "It's always about getting paid, sweetheart. It's always about getting paid."