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Vegetarians need not apply

I love barbecue. I love everything about barbecue. Buying just the right tri-tip, briquettes and hickory wood chips, marinating the meat, then listening to it sizzle on the grill, watching the smoke roll out of the grill vents, while sipping a cold one, the wonderful smell. And, of course, there is exquisite taste of perfectly grilled meat, tender and moist.

Needless to say, when I heard there was a barbecue event planned for the Home and Garden Show this weekend at the Nevada County Fairgrounds, I was more than mildly interested.

Today is the last day for folks to attend the annual home show and those who turn out will get a glimpse into the world of competitive barbecue, thanks to the “The Pros vs. Joes BBQ Throwdown” at 1 p.m. next to the food court.

The contest will pit an audience member whose name has been randomly chosen against a BBQ Pit Master, with a representative of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and a local celebrity judging the competition.

Both will be supplied with a grill, chicken wings, rib-eye steak and a box of fresh ingredients, including spices, olive oil, onion, garlic and “mystery ingredients.”

Event promoter and certified Pit Master Scott Gomes has been a barbecue caterer for 15 years and says he moved into competitive barbecue about six years ago.

“I’ve fallen in love with the sport of competition barbecue and promoting it,” Gomes said. “I put on competition barbecues in Penn Valley, Placerville and all over the state. Now, I want to go back to cooking and competing again.”

According to Gomes, competition barbecue is one of the fastest-growing food subcultures, with the size of the events and prize money growing dramatically.

“Teams travel all over the nation to compete at different events and the average prize money has increased from something like $3,000 to much higher amounts,” Gomes said. “This May in Las Vegas, there will be a barbecue contest with $125,000 in prize money. The average contest in California is probably around $15,000 and higher. It’s just gone crazy.”

Typically, a contest requires participants to cook four meats, including chicken, St. Louis-style ribs, pork and brisket. Contestants will arrive on a Friday night, set up camp and begin cooking at about 9 p.m. with the brisket, which takes approximately 14 hours to slow-smoke.

“The turn-ins (for judging) start about noon on Saturday and happen about every half-hour, with the chicken first, ribs second, pork and then brisket,” Gomes said. “There is one Kansas City-certified judge per each team, so if there are 40 teams competing, then there will be 40 judges on site. They use a blind judging system so that none of the entries is marked.”

According to Gomes, the entries are judged on three criteria: Taste, tenderness and appearance.

A Grand Champion, Reserve Champion and division winners are then crowned.

What makes someone want to immerse themselves in the world of competitive barbecue?

“I love the catering side,” Gomes said. “Who doesn’t want to be outside? And catering is so fun. We did onsite events where we would set up at parks and outside venues. Then I saw a magazine called National Barbeque News and I started looking through it and said, ‘Hey, this (competing) is something I would like to do. I checked their calendar and started competing.”

Tom Kellar is a freelance writer who lives in Cedar Ridge. He can be reached at thomaskellar@hotmail.com.