When Butch Transue, assistant manager for dining and culinary services at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, decided to check out a barbecue contest—with a hope of good food—he quickly found himself falling in love with the competitive barbecue scene. He spoke to FSD about participating in barbecue competitions and what it takes to win.
“My friend, Matt Lahm, and I decided to go down to a barbecue contest in Illinois, just to see what it was all about and hopefully get some good barbecue. We drove a couple hours to this contest, got there and found out you just can’t go up and get food from the participants. So we thought it was a waste of a drive until someone came up to us and asked us if we wanted to judge. So we we’re like, ‘Yes, then we can eat the food!’ The contest invited us back the next year to judge.
We both went home and bought little inexpensive smokers, and I just started practicing at home and reading about barbecue. Then [the city of] Madison had a barbecue contest. I didn’t think we were ready to compete in the main competition, so we decided to enter the backyard barbecue part of the contest. My friend cooked ribs, and they had an anything goes category so I did a seafood medley. I ended up getting a perfect score and winning $500. So I thought, ‘man, this barbecuing isn’t so bad.’ The next year we competed in all the categories and won the anything goes fish category again.
Total, we’ve competed in about 18 to 20 competitions during a 10-year period. We’ve won one grand champion competition. We’ve won in different categories several times. Our team name is Jelly Roll Jones BBQ. But what you have to understand about the barbecue circuit is that the people who are really into it do 18 to 20 a year. They go every weekend to a contest. A few times we have gone to the American Royal barbecue contest in Kansas City, Mo., which is the biggest barbecue contest in the world. We’ve placed there several times, as high as sixth in ribs. It’s really exciting to go where all the best teams in the world are and get called down to the stage.
The biggest threat to our success is the elements. We’ve been in competitions where there are tornado warnings going off. I remember once I had to physically hold the tent down because it was about to blow away right when we were finishing up our food to give to the judges. It wasn’t nice at the time, but it’s funny to remember now. Another time it was like 98°F, and we thought, ‘oh, it will be cool down by Lake Michigan,’ which it was not. There was no breeze off the lake, plus a urine smell and animals hooting and hollering during the night.
We win with our ribs the most, but to be a grand champion in a competition you have to cook in all categories. It starts with chicken, then ribs, then pulled pork and finally beef brisket. You turn those in in a Styrofoam to-go box. You have to have enough meat for each judge. The judges just seem to like our ribs. Our style is more Kansas City-style barbecue. We’ve found that you have to tailor what you’re doing to what the judges want. Sometimes what we like to eat ourselves isn’t going to win the contest. There are also regional differences to keep in mind when competing. I really enjoy meeting all the people from all over. There are always some interesting characters at these events. It’s kind of like camping out with 500 people who are all bragging about how good their food is.”