The scene: a scorching weekend in August 1993, in the parking lot of RFK Stadium. Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers, is autographing his cookbook, “Barbeque’n with Bobby,” while representatives of the Republican and Democratic national committees compete against each other with fire and meat.
Reads like the script of a political comedy, doesn’t it? But that’s how a co-founder of the National Capital Barbecue Battle describes a scene at the first such event held in Washington.
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.
In the mid-’90s, the Garys were replaced by Tubis’s wife, Suzanne Tubis, and, to run the competition component, Doug and Kathy Halo. The couple had competed professionally and done well, often placing in the top 10 at Memphis in May in the whole hog category. (They left the circuit in 1996, before the birth of their daughter.)
For many years, the Battle followed Memphis in May judging rules, with both blind and on-site judging, and its categories are pork ribs, pork shoulder and whole hog. A few years ago, a change in the organization overseeing that judging led to the Battle adding a second competition adjudicated by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. Its categories are chicken, beef brisket, pork ribs and pork shoulder, and all judging is blind. The Battle was one of a very few contests with both forms of competition.
Last year, the Battle went solely with a KCBS competition. The decision resulted in grumbling among competitors. In response, Halo is bringing back on-site judging for the National Pork Board-sponsored pork championship. But the award excludes whole hog and is based solely on ribs and pork shoulder; it is a Battle-only event, not recognized by any sanctioning body. “It’s strictly bragging rights,” Halo says. “And money and a trophy.”
The Washington Post is one of several dozen sponsors, some of which offer cash and prizes for the category winners. Sponsors host competitions in non-sanctioned categories such as pork, chicken, lamb and beef.
Over the years, the food has changed to please the judges.
“The trend at this point in time is candy sweet with a finish of spice at the end,” multiple-time champion Mike Mills was quoted as saying on SeriousEats.com. “It’s sickening sweet.”
Indeed, during the first season of “BBQ Pitmasters,” a top competitor, Harry Soo, was shown sweetening his sauce in response to judges’ criticism of his food in earlier contests. “We try to find something we think the judges will like,” he said. “They only take one tiny bite out of the sample. And we think that this sweet mini-explosion will do it. I wouldn’t eat it myself, but hopefully the judges might enjoy it.”
One of the ironies of contest barbecue is that, because of the food’s “one-bite” nature, it’s a style rarely served in restaurants, even those operated by cook-off champions.
Another is that a contest is often a lousy place for the public to get great barbecue. That’s because health regulations prohibit public sampling. That means, unless you are a friend of a competitor, you don’t get to eat competition ’cue, which, despite the sweetness trend, can sometimes be phenomenal. Instead, contest attendees buy food from vendors. As at a lot of festivals, that barbecue can be hit or miss.
Although it is called a barbecue battle, the Washington event is really more a small-town street fair. Kids jump on moon bounces and check out the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile. Forty-three teams will compete this year, a small number compared to Memphis in May’s 250 and American Royal’s 500. Last year, CNN named the Battle one of the nation’s “five can’t-miss summer festivals.” Yet, despite the carnival atmosphere and the comparatively few teams, the Battle has attracted some top competitors and last year was named one of “America’s Best BBQ Competitions” by Saveur magazine.
There is a free sampling pavilion, though patrons often wait for an hour or more to get a bite of sponsors’ foods. And there are cooking demonstrations from some top barbecue competitors, such as Myron Mixon, who will be in the new Legends of Barbecue area with Johnny Trigg, Tuffy Stone and Heath Hall.
The four also will be competing, and one of the things to watch for this year is whether Hall’s team, Pork Barrel BBQ, which is from Washington, can repeat as grand champion. With partners Mike Anderson and Bill Blackburn, Pork Barrel BBQ has parlayed its fame into an eponymous restaurant in Alexandria.
More than 100,000 people attend the Battle nowadays, a far cry from that first event 20 years ago. The barbecue might be sweeter; can’t say the same for the Republicans and Democrats.
Questions about the Battle? Join Jim Shahin for today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. The National Capital Barbecue Battle takes place Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., on Pennsylvania Avenue near Penn Quarter; for details and ticket information, go to www.bbqdc.com.