The Garden City Telegram
9/22/2012
SOUTHWEST LIFE

Barbecuing buddies

Becky Malewitz/Telegram Keith Overland and Will Johnson hold up the ribs and brisket they will be cooking in this years barbecue competition in Garden City.
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By RACHAEL GRAY
rgray@gctelegram.com

Competition is as much about camaraderie as it is about winning for local barbecuing team.

It takes skill, with a little bit of luck rubbed in.

Turning in the most appetizing, tender and favorable piece of barbecued meat is a perfected skill. But at the end of the day, it comes down to the judge's taste buds.

That's according to the men of Smokin' Armadillos, a local competitive barbecue team.

Will Johnson and Keith Overland have been cooking together for about three years. The two watched a TV show about grilling and thought the competition seemed easy.

It wasn't.

But it turned out to be fun and addicting. Now, the duo go to about 10 or 12 barbecue competitions per year.

It's an expensive habit, but can be rewarding.

"We call it our $1,000 weekends," Johnson said.

But once you get a taste of it, you keep coming back.

"The problem is, you win something and get hooked," he said.

The two are competing in this weekend's Sky's The Limit BBQ Classic in Garden City, scheduled for today in the parking lot of the Clarion Inn, 1911 E. Kansas Ave.

They hope the judges like their recipe, one that has been a few years in the making.

Overland and Johnson said they took an entire year trying to perfect a winning recipe, and didn't do well.

The two took a class in Sperry, Okla., from Donny Teel of Buffalo's BBQ.

Overland said they were on the right track and used the spices Teel recommended. Teel suggested two different ingredients and gave them some technique pointers.

"We would have discovered it on our own — in about 15 years," Overland said, laughing.

They've come a long way since that first competition in Dodge City.

Lucky Luckett was a part of that team. He's competing Saturday in the amateur division.

During that first competition a few years ago, it was difficult to decide whose recipe to use, because the men all had their own. Luckett, who is originally from Louisiana, tends to add more Cajum-style spices to his recipes.

They ended up cooking five recipes and sat down to taste them to decide which to turn in.

"Everybody liked their own," Johnson said.

They ended up handing out samples to people to decide which to turn in. The men don't remember whose recipe won.

Now, Johnson and Overland's recipe includes about five different layers of flavor.

"We did it wrong when we first started out. We'd just buy a bottle of rub and put it on," Overland said.

They tweak the recipe to be a little sweeter or spicier, depending on the location of the competition.

Saturday, for western Kansas, they'll go right in the middle.

"It starts off with a sweet taste, then as you sit there, you'll feel a little heat in the back of your throat," Overland said.

"There's definitely a science to it," he added.

During a competition, teams are judged based on the appearance of the meat, its flavor and the tenderness. They turn in chicken, brisket, pork and ribs to be judged.

If one of the turn-ins goes wrong, that can ruin the whole competition, Overland said.

A lot depends on the judges.

"It depends on the different judging tables. Just one event can ruin your chance of placing," Overland said.

That's where the luck comes in.

"I hate to say it's luck of the draw, but it is," he said.

Overland and Johnson have had some luck.

The two took reserve champion in Thornton, Colo., during a Sam's Club competition.

"Then we went to Albuquerque and got dead last," Johnson said.

But it's not about the competition. Winning earns bragging rights, but even more the men enjoy the camaraderie of such events.

They've beaten barbecue superstars such as Johnny Trig and Tuffy Stone. They've met about three-fourths of the participants on Pitmasters, a TLC television show about barbecue competitors. And they stay in contact with about 30 to 40 teams throughout the year.

"It's not about the money. It's about the barbecue," Overland said.

But they do like to win.

"It's the bragging rights," Johnson said, and laughed.

Mainly, it's about putting meat on the grill and enjoying the company of like-minded people.

"It's just a good class of people. They do the same things we do and have a lot of the same background," Overland said.

To get started at a competition, the teams begin to cook and prep at about 3 a.m. Instead of sleeping just a few hours, the teams stay up all night.

"There's just something about staying up all night on a Friday and cooking barbecue and drinking with your friends," Overland said.

Luckett chimed in with a laugh, "... Telling lies and drinking beer."

The teams often sit around the fire before the competitions and share tips and secrets.

"We tend to talk about our mess-ups more than our successes," Johnson said.

And anyone can win on any equipment — from custom smokers to traegers to charcoal grills.

"It's not about what you have, it's about how you use it," Overland said.

The men urge anyone interested in competing at a barbecue competition to just sign up.

But, Luckett said, you might get hooked.

"It's like going fishing and catch that first fish. You might not catch another one, but you're going to keep trying," he said.