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Smokin’ Gobbler BBQ Cookoff sees delicious food and camaraderie on display

The cookoff, which is a fundraiser for King Turkey Day Inc., took place this weekend at Nobles County Fairgrounds.

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Judges select a sample during the ribs round of the Smokin’ Gobbler BBQ Cookoff, Saturday, July 16.
Emma McNamee / The Globe
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WORTHINGTON — The Nobles County Fairgrounds was bustling this weekend with trailers, smokers, and most importantly, lots and lots of barbecue for the annual Smokin’ Gobbler BBQ Cookoff.

This year marked the Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned event’s largest turnout, with 40 teams competing for the title of Grand Champion — an honor won by SHIGGIN & GRINNIN, with Ash Kickin’ BBQ following as the Reserve Champion. Along with the $1,500 grand prize, that Grand Champion win also secures the winning team an invite to the American Royal World Series of Barbecue Competition in Kansas City, Missouri, later this year.

Coming from all over the Midwest, teams that participated in Saturday’s cook-off put forth their best chicken, ribs, pork and brisket across four rounds for judges — some of whom have traveled as far as the competitors themselves to be there. The meats were then judged on three categories — appearance, taste, and tenderness — and ranked on a scale of one to nine, with nine being excellent and one resulting in disqualification.

“The boxes [containing meat] will get presented to judges and everyone gets to look before they sample,” explained event coordinator and Hy-Vee meat department manager John Roberts. All the judges have to complete a class before they're allowed to take part in the circuit, but many Saturday volunteers have earned the rank of master judge, having taken part in over 30 competitions.

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Competitors wait to drop off entries during the Smokin' Gobbler BBQ Cook-off, Saturday, July 16, 2022.
Emma McNamee / The Globe

The rounds are staggered throughout the afternoon, with a ten-minute window for competitors to make the drop off of the meats they’ve just cooked. While everything gets renumbered and resorted before being presented to judges in order to ensure judging is completely blind, some competitors will linger and watch who puts down on which tray, before the whole thing disappears inside.

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“The other cooks and everybody know each other and so even though they're going to mix them up in there, there’s some superstition to it like ‘I don't want to be on this tray as some other person, because they're a good cook,’ you know?” Roberts laughed. “So they kind of play that little cat-and-mouse game. It's kind of funny.”

For Carmen, Jason, and Justin Enerson of Rum & Smoke BBQ, this marks their fifth year competing in the Smokin’ Gobbler Cookoff. Hailing from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, they spent over a thousand dollars between travel, meat, and other preparations — but they wouldn’t want to miss this.

Jason and Justin Enerson prep their brisket entry for the 2022 Smokin' Gobbler BBQ Cook-off, Saturday, July 16, 2022.
Jason and Justin Enerson prep their brisket entry for the 2022 Smokin' Gobbler BBQ Cook-off, Saturday, July 16, 2022.
Emma McNamee / The Globe

They compete in approximately ten competitions a year and have two Grand Championships to their name — and years experience, cooking classes, and travel to give them a good view of the competition.

“Sweet scores well in Minnesota,” Justin explained, while the team put together their entry for the final brisket round. “You’re trying to be right in the middle for competitions, so you get judges to score the same, but we do tweak our recipe depending on the region.”

They’ve become some of the many familiar faces at the Worthington cook-off since its start in 2011.

“You travel around with people enough [on similar circuits] and you just kind of get to know everyone,” Roberts said of the community and sportsmanship that goes hand in hand with the cook-off.

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Worthington team 'Good Ol Boys', competed in the 2022 Smokin' Gobbler BBQ Cook-off. Pictured are team members Dave Dale, Scott Belz, and Chris Cummings.
Emma McNamee / The Globe

Sure enough, once the final entries have been dropped off, competitors mingle on the grass between trailers, sharing samples from leftover meats, and commiserating over the long hours of cooking they’ve just been through.

“You really do end up with a barbecue family,” Roberts added.

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Emma McNamee joined The Globe team in October 2021 as a reporter covering Crime & Courts, Politics, and the City beats. Born and raised in Duluth, Minn., McNamee left her hometown to attend school in Chicago at Columbia College. She graduated in 2021 with a degree in Multimedia Journalism, with a concentration in News & Feature Writing and a minor in Creative Writing.
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