MANATEE -- As Bill Eurice removed the grill’s cover, the smell of seasoned, savory meat wafted in the air.
Eurice took a deep breath and peered inside. “Looks good, don’t it?” he asked. “Makes me want to eat it now. The heck with the contest.”
That contest was the fifth annual barbecue competition at the Manatee County Fair on Saturday. Twelve teams of two to four people competed.
Their mission: cooking beef brisket, a meat that can take between seven to nine hours to cook, contestants said.
On Saturday morning, contestants gathered near the northern end of the fairgrounds and drew numbers from a hat. Those who drew smaller numbers picked their brisket first. But it came with a price: those who picked first were judged first at 5 p.m.
At about 9 a.m., the contestants got to work.
Michael Alligood placed third in two previous years of the competition.
His secret to a mouth-watering brisket?
“If I told you that, I’d have to kill you,” Alligood said. “A little secret here, a little secret there.”
Others in the competition shared his sentiments. Team members whispered to each other cooking instructions so their opponents couldn’t hear their brisket secrets. “A little bit of this, a little bit of that,” one man told another contestant when asked what seasoning he used.
Contest coordinator Jason Harper said each brisket weighed about 10 pounds. In previous years, the meat of choice has included chicken and ribs. “Each year, we try to mix it up a bit,” he said.
The biggest challenge contestants said they faced on Saturday was time since briskets are best slow cooked.
“It’s the toughest, toughest piece of meat you can cook,” said Randy Howrigan of Palmetto.
Because of time constraints, especially for those being judged first, the briskets were cooked at slightly higher-than-normal temperatures. But “you can also get a nice piece of shoe leather if you’re not careful,” Michael Mott, Howrigan’s cooking partner, said.
To participate, each team paid a $75 registration fee. During the cook-off, they are each given a 22-inch grill that they get to keep after the contest.
At 5 p.m., the judging began. Every five minutes, one team would turn in samples of their brisket in Styrofoam containers to the five judges.
Contestants placed their briskets on tables, removed aluminum foil, and sliced them into pieces.
Many wore gloves as they carefully cut into the meat.
Others, like Doug Mays, went glove-free. His fingers greasy as he kept the meat in place, Mays cut slowly into his team’s brisket.
“It looks like a surgeon at work,” said Kevin Lausman, another contestant.
“I’m nervous,” Mays said. He traveled from Fort Lauderdale to participate in the contest.
At about 6:30 p.m, the judges made their decisions.
“The results are in,” Harper announced as the group gathered around him.
Alligood and his partner, Chris Allen, won third place. Stephen Blenker and his three team members placed second.
Allan Johnston, of Bradenton, along with his two friends, won first place. Johnston said he used citrus and honey to season his brisket. “Good, good,” Johnston said as he stared at his plaque.
The three winners were awarded money that will go toward the Manatee County charity of their choice.
“They do enjoy themselves,” said Fair Manager Daniel West. “They love to cook.”