Brenau’s third annual barbecue cooking championship is a festival of family fun

May 19, 2011
Rudi Kiefer
Gainesville, Ga.'s Frank Norton Jr. and his Loco Pollo & Pig team placed first in the ribs category of last year's Brenau "backyard braggarts" amateur competition. The team, in the background from left, includes Ed Brown, Andy Fox, J.R. Johnson and Tim Moss

In what is becoming the must-attend family weekend event, Brenau University hosts its third annual barbecue cooking championship on the Gainesville campus Friday and Saturday, May 20-21.
Top professional cook teams from around the Southeast vie for both prize money and rights to compete for the “Memphis in May” national championship while about two dozen amateur “backyard braggarts” cook teams from the region show their rumps, ribs and other specialties for, well, basic bragging rights. The entire aromatic event also features lots of activities for kids, live music, food for sale (and some impromptu sampling after the judging is over), shopping opportunities among a wide variety of vendor booths, and the occasional barbecue-loving celebrity sighting.

But the main attraction, as always, is the barbecue. Sanctioned by the Memphis Barbecue Network, the Brenau Barbecue Championship will showcase 20 of the Southeast’s elite professionals competing for cash prizes. Judges come from nine states, said Barco, and all have been trained in what to look for in their “blind” sampling of the entries in various cooking categories.

In addition to the possibility of sampling barbecue from the pros and amateurs after the judging is done, there will be plenty of competition-class barbecue for sale – from Rick’s Smokin’ Pig in Gainesville, one of last year’s “amateur” contestants, and the award-winning professional Dixie Cue, a first-place winner in previous Brenau competitions as well as other competitions around the state. Yazoo’s Delta Q from Hernando, Miss., last year’s grand champion at the Brenau barbecue and the current reigning “world champion” from Memphis in May, will cook especially for corporate sponsors at the Friday night preview, but will also participate in the Saturday competition.

Melissa Cookston, who serves on the team with her husband, Pete, and daughter, Lauren, said she looks forward to the Brenau event.

“We obviously have been to a lot of barbecue competitions over the years,” she said, “but the Brenau event is one of the better ones.”

The event opens with a Friday night preview party at the Brenau Amphitheater featuring music from the world-renowned traditional bluegrass and gospel ensemble, The Musselwhite Family, Gainesville singer-songwriter Kimberly Clark and a lineup of other performers from the John Jarrard Foundation program. Gates open at 5 p.m. with a $10 admission.

Admission for the Saturday festivities, which run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., is $5 with kids 10 and under admitted free. In addition to visitors’ having opportunities to be around and collect tips from some of the best barbecue cookers in America and see them in action, there will be plenty of other things to do, including projects in a “Kids’ Clinic,” sponsored by Lowe’s Home Improvement, a playground area and vendors offering everything from custom jewelry and hand-crafted accessories and artwork to baked goods, jams, jellies, spices, seasonings and rubs.

Ticket sales and other revenues raise money for scholarships to Brenau University for students from the Gainesville and Hall County areas.

Jim Barco, Brenau’s senior vice president for institutional development and the Brenau Barbecue Championship director, predicts attendance will top last year’s, estimated at close to 4,000.

“We are expecting absolutely beautiful spring weather,” said Barco. “You will be hard pressed to find another relaxed, fun-filled setting for enjoying the weekend with friends and family.”

Heather Casey, a Brenau political science professor who as a volunteer oversees beverage sales at the fund-raising event, recalls last year serving a beer to a familiar-faced man. After he left, Brenau’s Provost, Jim Southerland, who was also helping in the beverage booth, told her who it was: ex-Atlanta Braves pitcher and Hall-of-Famer Phil Neikro, who lives in the Gainesville area and was wandering around among the cook teams, taking in the sights and smells.

For more information, go to

Originally published on 5/13/11