A man wearing an apron and a camouflage-patterned hunter's cap tore apart a pork butt with his rubber-gloved hands, oblivious to the Marilyn Monroe look-alike onstage at the other end of the room. The singing blonde belted out Aerosmith's "Walk This Way," and the 33rd annual American Royal World Series of Barbecue was under way in the West Bottoms.
Last Friday, a record 545 teams set up their smokers and hoped to claim the unofficial title as the world's best barbecue team — and the $12,500 check that went with it.
"Friday night is what we call the drunk-and-stupid night," said Joni Smith of Kansas City's Chickenbutt 10 Cents a Cut. "The rest of the weekend is when we get down to the serious business."
Teams ringed the American Royal exhibition hall and Kemper Arena, banners affixed to tent poles and chain-link fencing announcing their names or contest victories. Chickenbutt was set up west of Kemper, just as the squad had done for the past 11 years. This is a second-generation team. Dave Reitz first competed alongside his father, Don, on a team sponsored by the Diester Company. The younger Reitz is responsible for this team's bible, a collection of notes from previous competitions: cooking times, rubs used, results.
After the party ended Friday, the invited teams — many of which had arrived in elaborate recreational vehicles towing hand-fashioned smokers the size of office conference tables — set their meats on to smoke and hunkered down for the long cold night. On Saturday, Sterling Ball and Big Poppa Smokers were crowned Grand Champion in the Invitational contest, based on their performance in four categories: chicken, ribs, pork and brisket. A day later, it was Minnesota's Shiggin & Grinnin that captured the open title.
"It's a whole lot more complicated than me cooking on my Weber on Sunday," Smith said. "This is the best of the best of the best."