Offered an inside view of the secretive world of competitive barbecue, I imagined wonderful smells wafting on the breeze and mass quantities of pork products. I wasn’t disappointed. What I …
Offered an inside view of the secretive world of competitive barbecue, I imagined wonderful smells wafting on the breeze and mass quantities of pork products. I wasn’t disappointed. What I didn’t expect to find were competitors cleaning saltwater panfish and a boy in a cage.
It took a minute to realize the boy was just keeping the family pets company and the pompano — which looked to be the oversized bluegill of the ocean — was this year’s mystery meat at the Wyoming State Barbeque Championships and Bluegrass Festival at the Washakie County Fairgrounds in Worland on Saturday.
Actually, the cage was quite roomy and the pups looked fun. I might’ve offered to relieve the lad, but the smell of fine smoked meats in abundance led my stomach to take the reins for the rest of my overstuffed frame.
The burly man cleaning the fish — which came all the way from Florida with the guts intact, was Kevin Gordon — the meat magician behind Burnin’ the Bone in Billings. He was raised in Powell, but admitted to defecting to Cody his senior year of high school and then moving across the border. Surprised by the choice of the mystery meat, Gordon had to run to the nearest store that morning to purchase a suitable fillet knife.
“I was hoping for octopus,” he said with a grin. “Anything but fish. Well, this particular fish, it’s something that’s definitely not typical around here.”
He and fellow competitor Tommy May, a Powell fireman, roofer and owner of Smoke Eaters food truck, were neighbors on smoker’s row — essentially a parking lot filled with millions of dollars of equipment creating the best barbecue in the entire state. In other words; a tangy-spiced Shangri-la.
May was stressed, having started his brisket at 2 a.m. for the noon deadline. He and daughter Aubrey were hoping for a golden ticket to November’s Kansas City Barbeque Society World Invitational in Shawnee, Oklahoma. They were also hoping for a large portion of the more than $10,000 in prize money on the state level and the notoriety that comes with the crown.
With his brand new handcrafted mobile platform, May was slathering on a final coat of his proprietary sauce as smoke billowed from his giant smoker, filling the air with the smell of split pecan wood imported from Texas. It’s the only ingredient in his operation not bought or grown in the Big Horn Basin, May said. Even his tub of honey is native to the region.
“Who says there’s honey in my sauce?” he said, guarding his secrets.
Worland has been the site of the state competition for 17 years, according to local math teacher and event volunteer Kevin Bentch. It was started by Jim Blake and the first year attracted just a few entrants. But each year the event grew quickly until they had to limit the number of teams entering from Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and Utah.
It was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, but folks were jostling for space last weekend as not-for-profit vendors opened their gates, offering the chance to experience the meat sweats to any and all with a pocket full of “Bone Bucks.”
If you had room for dessert, there were cheese-stuffed peaches and fruit cobblers lovingly baked by the volunteers of St. Albans and topped with rich scoops of ice cream.
I chose both experiences, having invested heavily in Bone Bucks and I left with empty pockets and needing an extra notch on my belt. There’s no need to mention to my wife that I asked Rita if she was single. She made a peach cobbler that brought tears of joy to my eyes. Also, maybe don’t tell Dr. Dean Bartholomew I may have broken every rule for a week’s worth of my diet in a few hours. His life-saving advice was left on the last bit of pavement before entering through the fairground gates.
With a few minutes remaining before the deadline, Aubrey May and Ashlee Pitt delivered Smoke Eaters’ entry in the seven-category event — which includes chicken, ribs, pulled pork, brisket, mystery meat, sauce and the people’s choice award.
Containers are numbered — to keep the cooks anonymous and the judging honest — then renumbered for an extra measure of security. Inside, about three dozen of the luckiest people in the world sat at church tables waiting to be served the six-course meal. The judging staff have been trained to look for presentation, appearance and taste.
Post-COVID peak, the throngs of folks clambering for barbecued delicacies were back. But the judging crews have been hard to reorganize, said Al Bowen, national representative for the Kansas City Barbeque Society.
“We kind of went out of business last year. We’re back up. We’ve got almost 500 contests this year,” Bowen said. “But we’re having trouble getting judges, because they haven’t come back as quick as the teams.”
Every precaution is taken to ensure trade secrets aren’t released to the public. “Don’t photograph the numbers on the containers or the food before it is served,” Bowen told me. Honestly, it was hard to hear my instructions as the smells from freshly opened containers clouded my judgment.
May had offered me taste tests of his entries prior to judging. His motivation for smoking meat is the joy he gets from making folks happy.
“Personally, I don’t like smoked food,” he said, being more of a burger and french fries kind of guy.
Bowen confirmed it to be a problem of becoming a master barbecuer.
“One of the drawbacks of doing these every week is you eventually have had enough,” he said.
May’s heavenly creations were moist, tender and tangy. I’m not sure if he really wanted to feed me or if he just wanted me to stop drooling in his catering cart. Despite the delicious tastes, 2021 wasn’t May’s year. At the awards presentation, Tommy and Aubrey embraced while they waited for the results. The eventual finish in the middle of the pack wasn’t what they were hoping.
“I was worn out and emotional,” he said. “It’s an honor to be a part of something this big. It’s exhausting and mentally draining. But I will keep doing it. One day we will bring the state championship trophy home to Powell. Just gotta keep trying and practicing.”
May started his business about four years ago. He has been donating his talents almost as much as running a business. During COVID lockdowns, May — along with other local businesses — donated his services to make food for hundreds of Powell-area residents who lost their jobs and were in need of a helping hand.
May’s mobile smoker will be fired up and serving during the Paint the town Red celebration Sept. 10. He’s lending his business to the Powell Volunteer Fire Department as a fundraiser for the department’s Christmas fund, used to buy presents for those who would otherwise go without.
Though his recipes are secret, it’s obvious May’s main ingredient is love.
“I’m proud to represent our community at any event,” he said. “I can walk away [from the contest] having learned a ton and be proud that we are a top competitor in the state.”
American Heroes BBQ, from Casper, took home the top trophy in the event, followed closely in second place by the Grillin’ Beavers of Thornton, Colorado. Thirty teams will compete at the national level Nov. 11-14.