HARVARD -- The Harvard Lions Fall Festival & Craft Fair will host the state championship barbecue cook-off for the second year in a row.
Not your average back yard barbecue, this is a bona fide regional competition fronted by a national organization.
That means all the details will be the book: Orchestrated setup, rules and regulations, official judges, and barbecue cooks who take their craft seriously. But this is fun work, and the cooks have a great time socializing with old friends from the competition circuit and making new ones they meet on site, said Ken Dakai, a member of the New England Barbecue Society, whose parent group is the Kansas City Barbecue Society.
With 10,000 members nationwide, the KCBS sponsors 300 competitions a year.
"It's a huge organization," Ken said. This all-American food sport is popular overseas, too, with about a half dozen groups in Europe and Australia, he added.
In an official proclamation signed by Gov. Deval Patrick, it was announced that the "grand champion" winner of the Harvard event will be invited to compete in the prestigious American Royal Barbecue Cookoff.
Ken, who lives in Clinton, got hooked on barbecue after a friend invited him to a competition 12 years ago, he said -- the Pig & Pepper Festival, in Westford -- but that contest is now defunct, he said. "My whole family appreciates my hobby," he said, and his wife, Kathy, is a member, too.
Ken's itinerary takes him throughout New England and New York during a season that lasts about as long as the cooks want it to, he said.
Right now, that would be the Harvard gig.
Ken is as serious about barbecue as anyone on the circuit, he said, but he won't man a grill this time. As one of a team of KCBS officials, he handles pre-event coordination. This involves meeting with judges and with the teams, who set up on site the night before. He will also help tabulate the results when the competition's over. They're aiming for 30 teams of barbecue masters, he said, with 20 signed up so far.
"This is a Kansas City Barbecue Society event," he said and that about says it all. Even the fare is by rote: Chicken, pork ribs, pork butt or shoulder, and beef brisket. Cooks can use sauces, or not, as they choose.
Asked about cuts of meat, Ken said brisket is tough but it's ideal for barbecue. "Cooked slow and low, it's very flavorful," he said. The same goes for pork butt, he said, which usually ends up as "pulled" pork.
A barbecue competition is a real road show, Ken said. Teams show up with camping as well as cooking gear. Some set up in tents and others travel in RVs.
At least 20 such teams (solo cooks are rare) will be at the Hazel Farm on the festival weekend of Sept. 13 and 14. Beef brisket customarily cooks overnight, requiring team members to "stand watch" and feed the fire. Competitors get together around the campfire and socialize.
Some teams have colorful names that evoke the flavor of their hobby, he said, such as the "Bastey Boys" from Templeton, "Lunch Meat" from Rockland and "I Smell Smoke" from Malden. One New Hampshire team calls itself "Yabba Dabba Cue."
The society trains judges to rate barbecued meats on specific criteria such as appearance (always presented in identical "take home" type containers) tenderness and taste. It's done "blind" and by number so it's fair, he said. And food is eaten by the folks who cook it. "Health rules are very strict about that," Ken said.
Competitors cannot set up as vendors to sell food, but to bring the folks at the Harvard Lions Fall Festival into the savory event this year, the barbecue competition will include a "People's Choice" event. Fair-goers will get to taste samples of pulled pork and judge them, Ken said.