The ribbers came from Alberta, Ontario and across the Lower Mainland to feed the hungry crowds at this year’s RibFest. In the end, it was local pittmaster Rusty Johnson — fresh off a win at South Sound BBQ Festival in Lacey, Wa. — who won the judges over, taking home best ribs and sauce.
In the People’s Choice Award, Regina’s Prairie Smoke & Spice took home the accolades. But to say that the other ribbers fell short would be going too far. While the judges were tasked to pick out a winner through a tripartite matrix of appearance, tenderness and taste, each BBQ operation and each pittmaster has its own idea of perfection.
Like a brewmaster or vintner, their pride lies in both the process and product.
These meat connoisseurs ride the seasonal rhythms of the rib circuit, bouncing from one town to the next at a humming pace, arriving at least a day early to start cooking a vast quantity of meat.
“I cooked about 50 to 60 pork shoulders last night and about 50 briskets,” said owner and pittmaster of Gator BBQ Nick Smith the opening day of RibFest.
“We rest the brisket, we pull the pork. We keep it hot. We fill all our smokers with ribs so we can do about 1,500 to 1,700 pounds every three hours, give or take.”
Smith’s mother hails from New Mexico, his father from Northern Ontario. But the way he grew up barbecuing has deep roots in the American South. Years ago, his father paired up with Larry Murphy, a big-time barbecue man from Alabama. With Murphy’s carnival ties, Smith says his father was one of the first to bring the rib circuit to Canada.
Growing up, Smith says he lived the carnival life and has only had one year where he wasn’t bouncing from funfair to festival across Canada and the U.S.
“We call ourselves barbecue gypsies. I mean, that’s what we are. We go into every town and we sell ribs and we leave for the next town,” said Smith.
“My dad says we’re meat rock stars.”