MARSHALL - Whether they were part of the cooking crew or in the taste-testing department, everyone seemed to enjoy the fun, family-friendly environment filled with flavorful varieties of food and drink at the 6th annual Southwest Minnesota State University Smokefest Saturday.
A total of 34 teams, varying from novice to professional, went head-to-head in the Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned event, which featured a grand prize of $1,500 and the chance to have their name drawn to compete in the premiere Jack Daniels cook-off.
"Thirty-four teams is the most we've had," said event coordinator Tim Steinbach, who is also the athletic development director at SMSU. "They're some of the top teams in the country and a lot of them are vying for points for the nationals race. We also do a Mustang Territory award, which is just for teams from an eight-county area just to get our local-regional flavor on it. We had 12 area teams. We're really happy with the turnout."
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Patrick Heinis, center, of Team Bork, Bork, Pork, carefully slices brisket for the Southwest Minnesota State University Smokefest competition Saturday.
The Smokefest competition actually began Friday, as teams arrived, set up camp and plotted out their plan of attack in the parking lot next to the SMSU R/A Facility. Beginning around midnight and early into Saturday morning, meat started going into the smokers. Amid the smoky air, there was also a sense of secrecy.
"It's fun to just be here," said Bob Jacob, who teamed up with his wife, Lois, and John Zerr for the cook-off. "(Friday), you could talk to your competitors, but not (Saturday). It's on."
Jacob wasn't the only one who didn't want to pass out any secrets. Dave and Sara Kraft of Marshall were hesitant to give away any clues about Lift Bridge Smoke Squad's dessert.
"It's actually apple bars," Dave Kraft said. "They're really good. The recipe is from Sara's 112-year-old grandma (Ruth Anderson). She'd have been 113 this year."
This year marks the first that Kraft, along with Nick Schwartz, Dan Schwartz, Matt Weller, Austin Demuth and Ben Alcorn, have competed in Smokefest.
"It's something different," Kraft said. "A bunch of us just decided to get together. We sometimes get together and smoke food. Most of us have families. It's about having fun, and we're having a blast."
Brad Runia said that team Big Stone Brisketeers, competing for the third year, anointed a new pit boss this year: his 10-year-old son Brevin. According to Runia's wife Jill, everyone does their part.
"The guys enjoy it," Jill Runia said. "It's a hobby. Brad looks forward to it every year. We all enjoy it. I was in charge of the kids."
For the Sons of Butchers Barbecue team, the contest not only brings the entire family together, it also reminds them of their competitive roots. For three members of the team - Bill Mulso, Mike Mulso and Mike Kramer - they are second-generation smokers.
"Bill is the son of a butcher (Bob Mulso), who used to compete when he was younger," Bill's wife Stacie Mulso said. "Mike Kramer's dad Wayne was a butcher, too."
"Wayne was the grand champion and Bob was the champion," she added. "It was a ring bologna competition."
Bob Mulso remembers competing at state conventions in the tri-state area.
"Wayne won a lot of awards," he said. "I always won two or three awards every year."
While the contest sometimes included cooking ham, bacon or summer sausage, Bob Mulso said the most successful was his beef sticks.
"I took it up to the state fair," Bob Mulso said. "I was in the locker business for 20 years. I also judged a couple of times in Wisconsin."
Elizabeth (Mulso) Sherman, a graduate of SMSU, and her husband Bob Sherman, also took part in Smokefest 2012, though their son Jacob, 4, seemed to enjoy the inflatables at the carnival area the best.
KCBS rules state that competitors are required to barbecue four meats: pork ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket and chicken.
"It's very particular the way the four categories are done," Steinbach said. "I even has to be boxed a certain way."
For Smokefest, there is also a dessert category.
"It's a lot of fun," said Brenda Dirckx of Marshall, who, along with Jeff Thompson, her husband Todd Dirckx, Dave Verkinderen and Sean Peltier, represented the Iron Pigs team. "We enjoy it. We just want to have a respectable showing."
Dirckx was in charge of making the pumpkin cheesecake, which received a lot of praise from those trying out samples.
"It's good, but then again, I don't think you can make cheesecake bad," Vicki Versaevel said.
Leon Versaevel said it also thought it was good and "very moist."
While the cheesecake got rave reviews, a second dessert, a cobbler, turned out to be a disaster, though it made for humorous conversation.
"We went to cool the cobbler down and the container broke," Dirckx said. "There was glass all over in the cooler."
That is why you make desserts, Todd Dirckx added.
While the judges, all 42 of which were KCBS-certified, had the final say, many competitors were their own worst critics.
"Our brisket, we didn't get it tender enough," said Marshall competitor John Pollock of team Chump Daddy. "Our pulled pork didn't get to the right temperature we wanted either. It's a little bit of a crap shoot."