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By Staff | Aug 26, 2011

The bluish haze of numerous charcoal fires smudged the air; a hodgepodge of trailers, tents and other temporary shelters choked the parking lot.

Strolling through the encampment, what struck me most was the pervasive seriousness that hung as thick as the pungent smoke.

No, it wasn’t a refugee camp. It was the fifth annual Smokefest held recently on the campus of Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall

I love smoked foods and have even made a few stabs at smoking. Very much a novice, I know just enough about smoking to be dangerous. I am also deeply intrigued by the TV show “Barbecue Pitmasters.”

Shortly after arriving at Smokefest, I found an official-looking guy named Mike Lake. He looked official for good reason: Mike was representing Kansas City Barbecue Society, an organization that sanctions barbecue competitions such as Smokefest.

“We have 31 teams competing today,” said Mike, who hails from Shannon, Ill., and has served as a judge on “Barbecue Pitmasters.”

“We’re challenging our teams with four kinds of meat, including pulled pork from a roast that weighed at least 5 pounds, brisket, ribs and chicken. Each contestant has to turn in six samples of each meat. The entries will be judged for appearance, tenderness and taste.”

Just as seen on “Barbecue Pitmasters,” contestants began to arrive to turn in their Styrofoam clamshells. Said clamshells were handled carefully as newborn babies.

A corner of the gymnasium had been curtained off for judging. After convincing Mike that I was a journalist, I was allowed to slip behind the curtain and witness the judging process.

Panels of judges were seated at half a dozen tables. The aforementioned clamshells were opened and shown to the judges who silently studied the mahogany chicken resting on a bed of emerald lettuce.

Each judge then selected one piece of chicken from each clamshell. Tasting commenced amidst an atmosphere that was as somber and solemn as a courtroom.

I soon had to leave, fearing that I might begin to leave puddles of drool on the gymnasium floor.

Back in the parking lot, I chatted with some of the contestants. One was Nate Berg, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and chef at a Minneapolis restaurant. Nate had built his own barbecue pit from a trio of 55-gallon steel barrels.

“I don’t care about the prize money; I just want to win a trophy,” said Nate, who makes his own rubs and sauces and participates in about six barbecue contests per year.

“My hope is that a win here will help launch my own barbecue business.”

Tony Mensink, who lives in Marshall, was taking things a bit less seriously.

“I found out the night before the competition that a buddy of mine had entered me into the contest,” said Tony. “I’ve barbecued at home before, but this is my first competition. I only cooked chicken and ribs today. This has been a very fun time, a very enjoyable experience!”

Another novice competitor was the father-son team of Kevin and J.J. Matheson of Rothsay, Minn.

“J.J. just graduated from high school,” sad Kevin, as J.J. sliced into a deeply caramelized brisket. “He hopes to make a career of cooking barbecue. A win today would be a very big deal for us.”

The Mathesons had constructed their own barbecue rig, using a 300-gallon fuel barrel for the smoking chamber and an old water heater as a firebox.

The whole conglomeration was then bolted onto a trailer and artfully painted.

“J.J. got an “A” for the barbecue trailer in his senior graphics design class,” said Kevin proudly.

Many competitors had purchased their barbecue equipment; Big Green Eggs were nearly ubiquitous. One barbecue pit had been custom built in Texas, sporting flashy colors and a sleek look that reminded me of a fighter jet.

A blue trailer boasted three barbecue pits, including a stainless steel behemoth the size of a refrigerator. The guy operating them was Moe Cason – the same Moe Cason I had recently watched on Barbecue Pitmasters!

I asked Moe how one lands a spot on “Barbecue Pitmasters.”

“You have to submit a 5-minute audition tape,” said Moe, a native of Des Moines.

I inquired about the tensions portrayed on “Barbecue Pitmasters.”

“Some of that was real, but some of it was for the show,” said Moe, who enters about 20 barbecue competitions per year. “It was a real privilege to be on “Barbecue Pitmasters.” It was also a real good time.”

With the last entries in the hands of the judges, I noted a much more relaxed mood around the barbecue encampment. Contestants were laughing, swapping stories, enjoying each other’s company.

In short, they seemed to be having a smoking good time.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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