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Barbecue Battle

Chester barbecue buddies Larry Herron, left, and Larry Stewart battled this weekend for statewide honors.
Chester barbecue buddies Larry Herron, left, and Larry Stewart battled this weekend for statewide honors.

The Chuckwagon

Members: Mitch Foster, Larry Herron, Kyle Herron, Dana Herron

Experience: More than 15 years cooking together

Sauce: Vinegar/pepper

Rank in state: 1*

Record this year: In six events, the team has won two competitions and placed in two others*

State rank last year: 2

*As of Friday

The Palmetto Cookers

Members: Larry Stewart, Jeff Stewart and Ryan Cate

Experience: 2 1/2 cooking together

Sauce: Light tomato/vinegar

Rank in state: 2*

Record this year: Placed in four of six events*

State rank last year: N/A; didn't participate in this competition

*As of Friday

MYRTLE BEACH -- The black cooker fashioned from an old oil drum opened at exactly 9:45 p.m. Friday.

"It is time," announced Mitch Foster, Chester's mayor and member of The Chuckwagon, the competitive barbecue team that entered this weekend's "Smoke on the Beach" cook-off ranked No. 1 in the state.

In a nearby white tent, zipped to protect their swine secrets, Foster joined teammates Larry Herron and Kyle Herron to "prep the hog," a nice way of saying they'll carve the fat off the cold pig they hope will keep them atop South Carolina's barbecue universe.

The Chuckwagon is one of two Chester County teams that prepared pork for this weekend's barbecue battle in Myrtle Beach. Heading into the contest, The Palmetto Cookers ranked behind only their county neighbor in the S.C. Barbeque Association's masters' competition.

Similar to NASCAR, the world of South Carolina competitive barbecue is based on a points system. Contests are held across the state throughout the year, with the exception of the sultry summer months.

Although some 350 teams participate in contests throughout the state, only 25 are in the master's contest, which requires cookers to compete in multiple events and ranks them based on a group of their scores.

The state barbecue association began three years ago as a way to develop the best barbecue judges in the country and to make the state recognized as the barbecue capital of the world, said association founder and president Lake High Jr.

"We're already the unrecognized barbecue capital," High said. "This was where it was invented. ... This is the only place in the nation where you have four types. We've got the best barbecue in the nation."

The popularity of the state's barbecue contests has grown tremendously since the association began, High said. The first year, the association judged two contests; this year, it will oversee 30.

This is just the second year of the master's competition.

The Chuckwagon finished second last year and the Cookers didn't participate.

Because no contests are held during the summer, this weekend signals what could be considered the beginning of the second half for the state's swine chefs.

The scene

The tents of swine squads lined a circular walkway inside the old Myrtle Beach Air Force base Friday night. Several tents down the trail, a flavorful fog intoxicated the senses.

Nearly 60 teams with names like "Pot Belly Cookers," "Hog Tied" and "Swine Time" have come to this parade of pig passion. Some drove from as far as Florida and Texas.

At the site of an RV decorated in Christmas lights of small pig-shaped bulbs sat Roscoe Kellahan, a maintenance worker from Wando.

Kellahan is a regular at barbecue contests. His competitive barbecue career spans 22 years. He has about 150 trophies.

If people don't know him by his first name, it's emblazoned on the back of his belt.

Sipping a Natural Light in between serving catfish stew and jalapeño cornbread, Kellahan said his wife, Gail, is the sauce guru behind his barbecue. She combined recipes from his side of the family and hers and never measures the ingredients. Once, when she was in the hospital and he was at a cook-off, Kellahan called her and asked how to make the sauce.

"You just add till you think you've got it right," was her advice.

The combination is a secret even to Kellahan's cooking partner, John Reeves Jr., a Rock Hill dentist.

"I've begged him (for) many, many years to write it down, but he won't do it," said Reeves, who started cooking with Kellahan more than five years ago. "It's a family secret."

The competition

Two sites down, the Chuckwagon tent smelled of vinegar and raw meat. Wearing white aprons and matching khaki baseball caps, Foster and the Herrons prepared the hog. Because the meat is provided to the contestants, they never know what too expect. Hogs can be too fat or too tough.

The Chuckwagon was pleased with its pig.

The team members looked like three butchers and operated like surgeons, with meticulous cuts and careful injections of seasoning into the hog. They rubbed seasoning onto the meat. Other techniques also went into the preparation of their pig that they wouldn't reveal.

"You don't want your competition to know everything," Larry Herron said.

There are other reasons why they don't tell all about their craft. In front of The Chuckwagon's cooking site stood 15 trophies, several with gold pigs on top.

They're ranked No. 1 for a reason.

Cookers' captain Larry "Big Larry" Stewart also knows about the hush-hush ways of competitive barbecue teams.

"They're very secretive," he said.

While many teams will offer their competition a taste of their wares, a beer or just a chair for a bull-shooting session, they won't talk about their injection, dry rub or sauce.

At the Cookers' camp, the Boston Butts had been cooking for awhile.

Stewart used to cook with The Chuckwagon but started his own team several years ago because his family wanted to cook and there are only so many spots on a team.

Stewart's son, Jeff, and son-in-law, Ryan Cate, make up the Cookers' squad.

"I've learned a lot from him," Jeff said Friday night, referring to his dad.

"He's in training," Larry Stewart said with a smile. "He's doing pretty good, though."

At 11 p.m. sharp, The Chuckwagon's three carvers carried the pig from the tent to the cooker. Foster and Larry Herron camped out at the site. Meanwhile, Larry Stewart sat in a lawn chair underneath his team's awning. This was his post for the remainder of the night.

Judging

On Saturday morning, dozens of pork testers sat five or six to a table under a giant tent.

Outside the judges' tent was a conspicuous site at many barbecue cookoffs: Al Werts, the barbecue association's chief marshal.

Werts, also known as "Big Al," sported a Charlie Daniels-style beard and tattoos that flow out of the sleeves of his barbecue association shirt. His ears sported one and three-quarter inch holes to accommodate large circular earrings.

"It didn't hurt," he said of the jewelry.

But his trademark is a large straw hat decorated with pins.

"Everybody knows this hat out here," he said. "If you see this hat on my head, there's a barbecue close by."

Teams picked their best barbecue for the judges. The Chuckwagon felt good about the meat they tasted. The Cookers' results didn't meet their standards. But anyone who cooks in these things will tell you that you never know how you'll fare until you hear from the judges, who look at such features as texture and tenderness.

Judges also must choose the best pork without a bias toward any one of the state's four sauces: vinegar and pepper, light tomato, mustard and heavy tomato.

"Very difficult," is how High described the task.

After everything was turned in, the teams sat back and relaxed. Some smoked cigarettes, sipped beers and talked about what they'd do when they left.

Sleep seemed to be in everyone's plans.

Going home

The weekend's results weren't what either team hoped for. The Chuckwagon came in sixth, and the Cookers finished seventh. However, the master's standings might still leave the teams ranked Nos. 1 and 2.

Regardless of the outcome, both groups enjoyed the contests.

The Cookers and The Chuckwagon are competitive, but Larry Herron, Larry Stewart and Mitch Foster are buddies, having learned to cook barbecue together at a cabin 30 years ago through sessions of poker, beer and lies.

These contests give them a chance to hang out with their families and friends. Wives, buddies -- even Herron's one-eyed, epileptic Maltese, Sweet Pea, made the trip.

Camaraderie means a lot. So does eating the pride of the South.

"None of us are skinny," Larry Herron said. "There's a reason."

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