ORIGINALLY WRITTEN LAURA CAMPBELL
The well-used grill sits outside a Tampa farm, just waiting to help its owner smoke up some trouble and maybe even win a prize.
But no matter the outcome, Cheri Bentz knows she’ll have some fun pitting her grill-and her skill-against some of the Midwest’s best at the barbecue cookoff this Labor Day weekend in downtown Florence.
Bentz’s “Smokin’ Trouble” barbecue team is one of about 30 entered in this year’s Sunday-Monday cookoff, Florence’s first to be sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society and declared a state championship by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
As such, the cookoff will serve as a qualifier for upcoming national cookoffs like the American Royal and Jack Daniels World Championship barbecue contests.
But for local first-timers like Bentz, the experience is mostly just for that-the experience.
“It’s something I’ve kind of learned on my own,” said Bentz of her barbecuing background, which goes back farther than the 10 years she’s been grilling to her childhood days of watching her mother grill hamburgers on the same family farm where she now lives with son Tyler.
“I read a lot of cookbooks and get different ideas,” she added. “I try to cook something out on the grill-whether it’s smoking it or grilling it-every weekend.”
And to Bentz, it will be worth the $115 entry fee and about $100 she will spend on meats for this weekend’s grilling experience, even if she doesn’t get reimbursed in prize money.
“It’s all for fun,” she said. “My goal is to at least place in one of the categories, but if not, it’s a learning experience.”
The categories are fourfold: beef brisket, chicken, pork and pork ribs.
Ribbons will be awarded for the top 10 entries in each of these categories. First place in each category will win $150, second will win $100 and third $75.
The reserve grand champion receives $1,000 and the grand champion $3,000.
Bentz and other cooks will begin arriving Sunday afternoon to get their meat checked and set up their cookers-which must be wood, pellet or charcoal cookers, not gas or electric-in their 20-by-40-foot cooking space.
An official cook’s meeting will follow at 6 p.m. to go over KCBS contest rules.
Next will be a 7 p.m. hog roast at the corner of Sixth and Main, free for cooks but open to the public at a cost of $4 or $6 per plate.
The local Prairie Goose Stompers Band will perform outside until 10 p.m., using cello, mandolin and piano to offer their “retro-progressive acoustic” twist on 20th century American music.
Fireworks at the lake will follow the meal.
Most teams-consisting of anywhere from two to eight members-will light their smokers Sunday evening and put on their brisket and pork butt to smoke overnight, said contest organizer Les Allison.
“Some teams will have team members sleep in shifts so the smoker can be tended as needed through the night,” Allison said.
“Quiet time” will be from 11 p.m. Sunday until 7 a.m. Monday.
Then, most teams will put their chicken and ribs in the smoker Monday morning.
Each team’s chicken entry will be due at noon at the tables of six judges each, located at the Florence ambulance building.
Ribs are due at 12:30 p.m., followed by pork at 1 p.m. and brisket at 1:30 p.m.
Entries may be submitted between five minutes before and after the official turn-in time without being disqualified. Garnish and sauce are optional.
Entries will be submitted in an approved KCBS numbered container, provided by the contest organizer.
Judges will score each sample for appearance, taste and tenderness/texture.
The scoring system is from 9 (excellent) to 2 (bad). A score of 1 is a disqualification, the grounds for which include unapproved garnish, sculptured meat, marked turn-in container, foreign object in container, fewer than six samples of meat or pooled sauce.
Judging will be completed by 2 p.m. and scores entered into a computer by KCBS representatives John and Clara Williams.
The printed results will be announced and prizes awarded at a 3:30 p.m. ceremony.
There’s still time to register for the cookoff, Allison said, which currently has cooks of all experience levels from more than five states surrounding Kansas, as well as from area towns such as Elbing, El Dorado, Potwin and Towanda.
“We have several first-time cooks, which is really kind of stepping out for them,” Allison said. “And for some people, this will be the 18th or 19th contest they’ve entered this summer.
“This is a passion for people-some people play golf, and some people barbecue.”
And it’s no small chunk of change to enter barbecue cookoffs.
“There’s the entry fee and the electricity, and of course there’s the travel, which is no small amount,” Allison said.
“It’d be pretty hard for them to get away with less than $100 on meat,” he added. “Most teams are going to do like two briskets, two pork butts and 10 or 20 chicken thighs.
“Probably most of them are going to spend $400 to $500 on the whole thing.”
That makes it all the more important to Allison that many of them will at least receive a ribbon at the awards ceremony for placing in the top 10 of a category.
“If they spend that much money, they like to come up and have their hand shaken and have something to show for it,” he said.
And one lucky attendee will take home their own Good One Model 30 patio grill, donated by Goodwin Enterprises of Burns.
“At this contest, you’ll probably see 20 to 30 percent of the teams using (Goodwin) smokers,” Allison said. “They’re pretty widely acclaimed in this region.”
Raffle tickets will be sold at the event for $1 apiece, $5 for 6 or $10 for 13.
“Or if you want to just donate $700, you can just get a smoker and you won’t have to go through the drawing,” he added with a laugh.
Allison said he hopes the cookoff will become an annual attraction for Florence.
“We are a struggling rural community trying to develop an identity so we can attract people,” he said. “This is one event that will draw teams or people in from a wide area.
“My hope would be that in the next five years, that one or two families will appreciate the hospitality and decide to move to the community.”
For Bentz, the experience might well take her away from the area in the future-but only to attend other cookoffs.
“I’m going to see how this one goes first, but if it goes well, I might check into doing a little bit more traveling,” she said.
Such competition just adds one more element of challenge to the grilling experience Bentz enjoys so much.
“When you’re cooking on the grill or doing a barbecue, you have your open heat right there,” she said. “To cook over it, to make sure you don’t burn it or don’t undercook it, everything has to be just right.
“I love that kind of a challenge.”
For more information or to sign up for the event, contact Les Allison at 620-878-4310 or 620-382-7310, or visit www.florenceks.com.