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Varsity Letters Now Include BBQ

14 Nov, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
The High School Barbecue Team is the Latest Trend. Are You Ready to Harness It?

Where there’s smoke, there’s …high school barbecue teams.

Varsity barbecue is a reality among teenagers and while it might be an exaggeration to say it’s a trend that is spreading like wildfire, it’s definitely, well, heating up.

So far, the idea is regionalized – the Dallas Morning News covered the third annual State of Texas High School Barbecue Cook-Off in Burnet. A total of 42 teams competed in 12 categories, ranging from brisket and ribs to potato salad and sauce.

"To say it's a life skill in Texas isn't exaggerating," said event organizer Mike Erickson, a culinary arts teacher at Burnet High School in the Texas Hill Country. 

Before you turn up your nose at the idea, consider this: in order to compete, various aspects of the schools must work together as a team, bringing together students from groups as disparate as the culinary school to the vocational students. Welding students construct the barbecue pits, for example, and culinary students prepare the food.

The State of Texas cook-off started in 2016 and has not only grown but become more competitive. Because of this, some counties now host their own competitions to decide which two or three teams to send to the championship. 

"It's democratic," he said. "Every small town in Texas has the ability to compete in a barbecue cook-off."

The event starts at 6 a.m., when students build wood fires and get their smokers warmed up. At 7 a.m., the meat has to be on the grill. The side dishes like potato salad and dessert have to be turned in by 9 a.m. Throughout the day, the competitors mind their smokers and wait for the meat to cook.

The teachers are allowed to stand outside the food preparation area as "pit bosses" and shout advice, but they're not allowed to touch any part of the entry. 

"It's just like a regular adult barbecue competition," said Alfred Ramirez, the culinary teacher at Fort Worth's O.D. Wyatt High School.

Other areas might be simply staring in open-mouthed wonder but according to the local ABC News affiliate, it doesn’t take long to understand the enthusiasm. Horticulture teacher Tommy Copeland helped start his team at Ennis High. “When we tell people about it, they’re in disbelief at first,” Copeland said. “Then they say, ‘Wow, I wish that was around when I was in school--I would have been on that team,’” he said with a laugh.

In Kentucky, country radio station WBKR tried to encourage local students to pick up on the trend.

“It makes sense that maybe we’re ready for a barbecue team,” the station noted on its website. Am I crazy or would this be a fantastic idea for Kentucky schools? Especially for those students who either A) are not all that into sport-sports and B) who love to cook and experiment with recipes. It would take community involvement to another level. Picture it, a high school BBQ team competition at the BBQ Festival.”

The event owner who harnesses the trend by starting a barbecue contest – and adding a high school division stands to gain more than additional economic impact; the novelty is something that could attract media attention.

This was apparent when WFAA found Ennis High School student Marshall Sladecek outside the school’s football stadium on game day, manning the grill. He told reporters that he and some other juniors got some ‘ribs practice’ outside the stadium. “We all barbecue, why not take it to the competition level?” Sladecek said. “Every guy needs to know how to do it.”

Schools with students who want to start a team generally begin by fact-finding on the Internet and frequenting sites that offer tips for building a team, getting equipment and entering contests. (Hint: those attending their first competition are advised to enter a beginner or “patio” division, rather than going head to head with the pros.)

With the increasing popularity of competitive cooking shows – BBQ Pitmasters being just one – the concept of a competitive cooking team for a high school could be viewed as a logical trickle-down effect from a burgeoning economy. And make no mistake, there is tourism money to be made in barbecue.

An article in The Dispatch of Davidson County, North Carolina, noted, a report by Looking Glass Research in Asheville stated that people who attended the Barbecue Festival spent $9.7 million during the one-day festival with 59 percent of that spent at the festival itself. Out of this total, local residents spent $2.3 million, and non-residents spent $7.4 million. Out of the overall non-resident spending, $3.7 million was spent at businesses not affiliated with the festival.

Event owners looking for a diversion to go along with compatible events, such as high school sports championships – might want to investigate the option of offering something that could provide a whole new revenue stream. And it’s right at the intersection of Friday Night Lights and competitive eating.

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