RUSK — On many weekends, Philip Brown and his family load up an RV and travel across Texas to barbecue competitively.
Brown, 60, of Canton, and his family made their way to Rusk to compete in the TX Hobo Cook-Off State Championship on Friday. The two-day event was held at the KOA campgrounds and featured about 30 cooks or teams looking to take home top honors — and some prize money — for the best brisket, pork spare ribs or chicken.
Twenty years ago, Brown tried to get his son into cooking but said the teenager at the time was more interested in other things. Now, at 33, Brad Brown has since taken up the hobby and along with his wife, Tosha Brown, travels with Philip Brown to cook-offs.
“This actually is a big barbecue family,” Philip Brown said of the event as a whole.
Cook-offs take place all around the state each weekend, and it’s common to see the same people again and again, Philip Brown said, adding that he feels like he’s missing out when he isn’t able to make it on a weekend.
Competition remains squarely on the minds of the participants, but they also understand everyone is aspiring to the same goal.
“If you beat me? Good, I’m glad for you,” Philip Brown said. “If I beat you, you’re glad for me. Nobody has any hard feelings on what we’re doing.”
RVs and grills filled the campgrounds as the smell of barbecue and sight of smoke filled the air. Midday Saturday, Oley Willis finished cooking his chicken before turning it over to the judges.
Willis, 54, of Jacksonville, came in as the defending grand champion from the last TX Hobo Cook-off, which was held two years ago.
“You’ve gotta love to compete,” he said. “This is a very expensive sport. It costs several hundred bucks to buy meat, get all your grill and stuff and come here with charcoal and wood and supplies and spices.”
Willis used to consider ribs his specialty but is now fond of brisket. He compared the preparation of the three different kinds of meat — chicken, pork spare ribs and brisket — to a juggling act. All cooking is done at the competition, and cooks have to prepare each meat in parallel.
Coming in as the defending champ doesn’t add any pressure and there are no expectations, Willis said.
“I’m gonna cook as hard a day as I’ve ever cooked, but to come here to expect that? Nah,” he said.
After the cooking is done, it’s all up to the judges, who can have different tastes and add some luck to the process of winning, he said.
The cook-off was sanctioned by the International Barbeque Cookers Association, which was founded 30 years. IBCA Region 1 Director Terry Blount was a part of the group that founded the organization and did so to help standardize the competitions.
“It just became from one cook-off to another you didn’t know what you were going to be cooking,” he said.
With established rules, competitors at sanctioned events could know which meat to focus on.
The winners are determined by taste judges who give scores of 1 to 10 over multiple rounds of judging. They use a double-blind method so no one knows which cook they are judging.
For any given meat, the score is added up to determine the top 10 places for that meat. First place receives $500 and scales down to 10th, which receives $100.
The first through 10th placements for each meat also provide points that are added up for the three meat categories and that determines who takes home the title of grand champion and the $1,000 prize.
In addition to money and bragging rights, proceeds raised from this event also helped the Cherokee County 4-H and Youth Development Program to provide scholarships and fund new projects.
For the winners and nonwinners alike, many will be ready to cook again next weekend.
“It’s kind of like a traveling circus,” Philip Brown said. “Everybody just picks up and ‘All right, where are you going next week?’”