When Terry Winebrenner brought his palate for barbecued meat to Apex when he relocated seven years ago, he had no idea he would be evangelizing to tens of thousands of his new neighbors.
Winebrenner joined a young Apex Sunrise Rotary Club five years ago as it searched for a signature event to sponsor. Winebrenner told the members what fun he had traveling the country as a certified judge for Kansas City Barbeque Society-sanctioned cook-offs.
“Gentlemen, we need to think big. Really big,” Winebrenner remembers telling them.
In its fourth year, big is what the club delivered.
Tens of thousands of spectators were expected to roam the downtown area of this town of 42,000 people at Peak City Pig Fest – the Triangle’s only Kansas City Barbeque Society-sanctioned event. Nearby, 48 cook teams from across the country worked to deliver meat good enough to win the contest and an invitation to compete at the premier American Royal Invitational in Kansas City.
The Kansas City Barbeque Society, the world’s largest organization for barbecue enthusiasts, sanctions 450 contests worldwide; each applies exacting judging standards monitored by society officials.
“Our club has become the barbecue club. We’re one of the smallest clubs, and this is one of the biggest events. We all just bought in,” said Graham Wilson, a founding member of the Apex club. Now, about half of the club’s 28 members are certified judges and spend summer weekends traveling to other cities to weigh in on the taste of barbecued meat.
“In North Carolina, you say barbecue, people think chopped pig with vinegar,” Winebrenner said. “We’re trying to educate people there’s so much more to it. We have that debate out here about 100 times each competition.”
Behind Apex’s Halle Cultural Arts Center, 48 teams sweated in 95 degree heat over smokers and grills, racing a clock to deliver to judges their finest pieces of chicken, ribs, pork and brisket.
Bragging rights in barbecue circles are hard fought. The teams worked through the night Friday over grills and smokers. Each has some special secret, guarded closely as their friendly competitors from across the country work in neighboring tents.
The moment of truth arrived Saturday between noon and 2 p.m. Nearly 50 judges huddled around tables outfitted with wet wipes, bottled water and saltine crackers to cleanse palates. Captains first strutted batches of chicken before the experts, who then squeezed and pulled at the meat, studying in silence.
Winebrenner selected the judges from 160 applicants. He studied their resumes, trying to find the perfect batch of experience and diversity, a special blend that he knows is as important as the recipes the cooks have fretted over for years.
He surveyed his crop proudly Saturday. Among them: women and men, novices and veterans, surgeons and teachers, home cooks and retired chefs. Many see one another at contests across the country through the year. Each contest is like a reunion.
The compensation, Winebrenner said, is simple: “Our payment is getting to eat good barbecue.”