EFFINGHAM — A backyard barbecue is a staple of a Midwestern summer.
But for some, barbecue is more than an excuse to crack open a beer with friends. It’s a serious sport.
Terry Bower, who grew up in Teutopolis and now lives in Quincy, competed this weekend at EffingHAM-JAM, a two-day annual event that includes barbecue competitions and street fair.
Bower, who calls barbecue a “side hobby,” said he participates in 15 to 18 competitions a year. He estimates a team spends $500 or $600 per competition just on meat, though costs for a competition rig — smokers, trailers and grills — can cost up to $75,000 or $80,000.
When asked why he spends so much time competitive cooking, Bower’s response is familiar to anyone involved in sports.
“The drive to be the best that you could possibly be and walking away with a little bit of bragging rights between you and your friends,” said Bower.
Bower, who competes with the Awesome Racks Cookin Crew, was just one of 29 entrants in the Kansas City BBQ Society State BBQ Championship this year. Other entrants included two teams currently ranked in the top 10 barbecue teams in the country: Chicago-based BBQ Bus and Heavy Smoke BBQ based in St. Peters, Missouri.
The competition was sanctioned and judged by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which claims to be the largest competition food organization in the world.
“Pre-COVID, we were running about 450 contests per year,” said KCBS representative Charlie Brinza. “It’s picking up pretty quickly this year.”
Though there was little official fanfare marking the return of competition cooking and HAM-JAM, the competition is coming back despite COVID’s shadow on the barbecue world.
“There’s already seven that’s been canceled this year,” said Bower. “Little towns have sponsors and sponsors don’t want to step out yet because of COVID.”
HAM-JAM is also one of the first large events in Downtown Effingham to come back after last year forced many festivals to shutter.
“We’re obviously super excited for the event itself,” said Effingham Tourism Director Jodi Thoele. “It’s probably the biggest event we have in the downtown area.”
Hundreds turned out Friday evening to enjoy barbecue cooked by local amateur and corporate teams competing for bragging rights in the local Hometown Throwdown barbecue challenge, and commemorative cutting blocks from John Boos & Co.
Wade Slover came from Sigel to compete with his family as an amateur.
“I just enjoy barbecue,” he said after the event.
While local “celebrity judges” judged amateur teams for best sauce, chicken, pork loin and theme, KCBS judges used their official judging criteria to award Slover and the team from Weis Insurance the “Top Hog Award” for best overall cooking.
“This is the only award I wanted to win,” said Slover with a smile.
“This has been his goal for five years,” added his wife, Sarah, as they broke down the tent where they passed out samples.
“I started watching barbecue competitions online and thought it’d be something I wanted to do,” said Slover when asked what inspired him to compete.
Beyond the cooking competitions, HAM-JAM featured The Troubadours, who opened for Nashville-based Loose Lips. Effingham native Myles Baker is a member of Loose Lips.
On Saturday, the farmers market joined HAM-JAM on the square and offered its usual produce and crafted goods alongside pancakes and coffee from Continental Mills and Fox Holler Coffee.
Following the farmers market, the stage was set for open mic for local bands and singers.
HAM-JAM is put together by the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce to support its nonprofit arm, the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The foundation offers scholarships to local students and puts together community-wide initiatives to support the local economy, like workforce development initiatives.
Chamber President and CEO Lucinda Hart said it was nice to be able to host the event while following current best practices for COVID safety.
“We worked really closely with the health department,” said Hart.
The KCBS competition offered a total of $6,000 in cash prizes, as well as trophies made by John Boos & Co. to winners in four categories — chicken, pork ribs, pork and brisket. Additionally, teams competed for an overall championship, earning points from their entries in the the four categories.
The overall winners and rankings were Que U, fifth; Rusty Pig, fourth; Big Boots BBQ, third; BBQ Bus, second; and Janky Leg BBQ, first place. BBQ Bus earned $700 for its second-place position while Janky Leg took home $1,200.
In the local corporate and amateur competition on Friday, John Boos & Co. won awards for its pork loin, sauce and theme and was the grand champion. The team, Porking Lot Smokers, won in the chicken category. The “Top Hog” KCBS-judged amateur competition winners were Wade Slover’s Jack Ass BBQ team and the team from Weis Insurance.