The Art of the ’Cue 

Schmoozing with great grillers at the Utah State BBQ Championship.

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I would just like to announce that I am officially retired from the world of competitive barbecue,” said Joy Tlou. He came; he saw; he cooked; he quit.

Tlou was looking bleary-eyed, and I’m inclined to think he may have had a beer or seven under his belt. He’s no quitter, but speaking to me on the afternoon of last month’s Rock ’n’ Ribs barbecue cookoff at the Gallivan Center, he seemed stomped, demoralized and hung out to dry. “I’ve been up for days,” he said, noting that competitive barbecue is a serious business.

“Get some sleep. Things will look better in the morning,” I counseled.

Tlou is one of my favorite human beings. You might know him from the talented musical duo Joy & Eric. Aptly named, he brings smiles and joy to everyone he encounters. So it was troubling to see him so beaten down at Rock ’n’ Ribs. “I got my ass kicked,” he said. It was the first time Tlou had ever entered a barbecue-cooking competition'and apparently the last.

Having just endured a milestone birthday, I’ve been thinking heady thoughts lately. Important questions plague me, like, “Is it wrong to listen to Insane Clown Posse on my iPod while mowing the yard?” And, “If you’re doing nothing, how do you know when you’re finished?” That sort of thing. With the first ever sanctioned barbecue cookoff in Utah looming, I found myself asking the question, “Is barbecue art?” I tried to find the answer at Rock ’n’ Ribs.

This year’s Rock ’n’ Ribs fest, held Aug. 25-26, was a landmark for Utah barbecue aficionados. It signaled the first time that a barbecue cookoff in this state was sanctioned by the prestigious (in barbecue circles, at least) Kansas City Barbecue Society'the world’s largest organization of barbecue and grilling enthusiasts with over 6,000 members worldwide. The KCBS sanctions more than 200 barbecue contests in year in the United States. Finally last month, Utahns got theirs with the first Utah State BBQ Championship.

Essentially, anyone with a bit of gumption and an entrance fee can enter these contests. In that sense, they are very egalitarian. As Tlou might advise, however: Be careful what you wish for. As I passed the Oink County Cookers’ mothership'a combination portable barbecue kitchen and U2-worthy touring bus'I could see that some of these barbecue folks were pros. Barbecue for these people is neither a hobby, an escape, nor a pastime: It’s an all-consuming passion. But I still needed to know: Is what they do art?

I caught up with Provo-based Jonathan Arnold and Richard Rivera, a team called 2 Pigs Smokin’ BBQ just after they’d submitted barbecued chicken, pork butt, ribs and brisket to the certified barbecue judges'a job I’d like to apply for, by the way. Like Tlou, Rivera and Arnold were cookoff rookies going up against heavy hitters from places like Arizona, Nevada, California, Kansas, Montana, Texas and other smokin’ states. I asked 2 Pigs Smokin’ if they thought barbecue was an original American art form. Arnold’s response: “When you spend hours and hours and hours cooking something and then you put it in a box and make it pretty and give it to some judges'yeah, that’s an art form. And we’re passionate about it.â€

One of my favorite local foodie/cooks/informants is Michael Roberts, chief cook for the Iron Horse barbecue team. His thoughts on the ontological status of barbecue were intriguing. “Like Alton Brown said recently on the Food Network, ‘Barbecue is something that suffers fools badly.’” Roberts continued, “It can’t be rushed. It can’t be hurried. And it can’t be duplicated in a short amount of time, and that’s why places like McDonald’s haven’t really gotten in on the barbecue scene. Barbecue doesn’t treat you well unless you treat it well. Barbecue is definitely an art form. It’s an acquired skill. But even when you’re pretty good at it, there are days when you’re no match for the meat.” Iron Horse would go on to artfully win fifth place in the prestigious ribs category.

Also in the barbecued-ribs category, Utah’s own Q4U took third place as well as the biggest hand from the crowd that afternoon, Q4U’s T and Becci being synonymous with barbecue in Utah. In addition to placing sixth overall for the day, Becci, T and Tyson of Q4U were given a special award for their “considerable contribution to barbecue as a culinary technique, art form and sport.” For their barbecued brisket, first-timers Arnold and Rivera of 2 Pigs Smokin’ won first place, edging out proven contestants like Patio Daddy-O and Otis & The Bird. How’s that for coming out firing?

When I asked Q4U’s head honcho T if barbecue was an art form, an addiction, a passion or just craziness he answered, “It’s all of the above. It’s absolutely an art form, but it’s really all about love.”

By the time the winners of the first annual Utah State BBQ Championship were announced and prizes awarded, Joy Tlou seemed to have caught a second wind. Most of the contestants had begun cooking 24-36 hours earlier but like Tlou, were finally relaxed and having fun. There was much camaraderie and support for Utah’s newbies from the well-tested barbecuers on hand.

Leaving the Gallivan Center, I ran into Tlou again. He was stoked. His team, Casual BBQ/Team Egg, had placed seventh in the barbecued-ribs category. Would it be enough to coax Tlou out of his early retirement? “After all,” I suggested, “Next year you could be sixth!” His response was something like, “I’ll need to sleep on it.â€

Spoken like a true artist.

Check out The Utah BBQ Association at

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