By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Vegetarians are certainly welcome to attend, but some may choose to give Hilo’s Mooheau County Park a wide berth come the Fourth of July.
That’s because, for the seventh year in a row, the parking lot along Kamehameha Avenue will be transformed into a carnivore’s paradise, in conjunction with the annual Hilo Bay BBQ Cook-Off.
The event has grown by leaps and bounds since it was sanctioned by the state three years ago, making it eligible to serve as the official Hawaii State BBQ Championship, recognized by the International Barbeque Cookers Association, said organizer Rick Frederick.
That’s a long way since the days of his small, backyard get-togethers that began about 20 years ago, leading friends to suggest he organize an official cook-off, he said.
“We used to have these parties on the shortest day of the year, and then that wasn’t enough, so we started doing them on July 4th, too. It was just amongst friends,” said the 67-year-old artist who owns and operates Hawaiian Arts on Kamehameha Avenue with his wife.
This will mark the fourth year that the event has served as the Hawaii State Championship sanctioned by the IBCA, making it an important event to hobbyists and barbecue aficionados around the world. Among those already signed up to participate will be Californian Harry Soo of Slap Yo’ Daddy BBQ, who has been featured on TLC’s reality program, “BBQ Pitmasters,” and who is a nationally ranked competitor.
Last year, Soo entered the Hilo event for the first time, and earned the overall grand champion title, as well as first place for his brisket and pork dishes. He even placed in the event’s poke division — a Hilo-only competition featuring a dish that he had never made before.
“I think it was an advantage that he’d never made it before,” Frederick explained. “He didn’t know how it was supposed to taste, so he experimented.”
After his big win, which helped boost his international barbecue ranking, Soo returned to East Hawaii in November to show his appreciation by putting on a special class for other area barbecue aficionados.
And that, Frederick said, is the goal: To showcase great barbecue for Big Isle residents who may not be familiar with the Southern tradition. Born in Louisiana and raised in Texas, Frederick said good barbecue is something with which he has a long relationship.
“We had it all the time. … I come from a family that used to make squirrel gumbo, and barbecue was all over Texas, in every direction,” he said.
Frederick says the event is a great opportunity for local barbecue fans to mix with competitors from the mainland and to learn new tricks. However, travel out here can be difficult, because many serious barbecue cooks have lots of equipment on trailers they like to travel with.
“I have to supply a lot of them with pits, tents, you name it,” he said.
Texan Judy Keeney, the IBCA head judge who has helped Frederick launch the Hawaii state championship competition, said recently via telephone that the Hilo event is by far the most remote location on the IBCA event circuit, but it offers some benefits that others can’t.
“There’s no other place we get to cook where our view is the Pacific Ocean,” she said. “And the fact that back here on the mainland it’ll be 90 or 100 degrees, and over there it’s like 80, those are just a few of the little perks.”
This year, there will be two or three competitors from the mainland traveling to Hilo, she said, and organizers hope the roster will continue to expand in the coming years as the Hilo event earns a name for itself.
“It has grown, and it will continue to grow. We understand they (Hawaii residents) may not be familiar with this stuff (Southern-style barbecue), so we really bend over backward to make sure everybody is comfortable and they understand all the rules,” she said.
Scoring in each of the categories is on a point system, from one to 10, she said. Then, the entrant with the most points is chosen as the overall champion. Competition categories include: Chili, poke, chicken, pork spare ribs, pork and brisket.
As for the non-contestants, there’s still plenty to do and see — and most importantly, eat. Among the more popular segments of the competition is a chili contest that is left up to the whim of the chili-eating public, as opposed to a judge.
“Everybody loves the People’s Choice Jack-Pot Chili contest,” Frederick said. “I always tell people, for $2, I’ll give you a spoon and a little cup and a ticket, and I’ll fill you up. You’re gonna eat some great chili!”
During the July 3 chili contest, attendees can walk between booths and try samples of each team’s chili, and then cast their votes for the winner. The contest this year will begin at 12 p.m. and go until 3 p.m., or when the teams run out of chili, whichever comes first. Winners will be announced at the July 4 awards ceremony.
Competitors will begin early set up in the parking lot on July 2, and the chili and poke competition judging will be held on July 3, at 3 and 4 p.m., respectively. Then, on the Fourth of July, chicken judging will begin at noon, followed by pork spare ribs at 1 p.m., pork at 2 p.m., and brisket at 3 p.m. Winners will be announced at a special ceremony at 4:30 p.m.
For more information, visit hilobaybbq.com or ibcabbq.org.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.