Barbecue banter: smoke-savvy national champions here this weekend

Dave Bolling-r 
 Krisy Bigalk-l 
 Williangham's BBQ of Memphis

Dave Bolling-r Krisy Bigalk-l Williangham's BBQ of Memphis

If you go

Ziggy Dick’s Barbecue Cook-off & Festival

When: 4 to 10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 6, and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7

Where: Collier County Fairgrounds, 751 39th Ave. N.E. (off Immokalee Road), Naples

Admission: $6, adults; free, children under 12

Sponsored by: The Rotary Club of Naples Bay

More information: www.naplesbayrotary.org

There are some high-powered rib runners — more than 40 — showing their skills this weekend in the annual Ziggy Dick's barbecue cookoff and festival. The annual eatfest is sponsored by the Rotary Club of Naples Bay from 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday at the Collier County Fairgrounds, 751 39th Ave. NE., Naples.

Besides the chance to enjoy prizewinning barbecue, the festival includes rides, entertainment, vendors, kids' events and more. Admission is $6 for ages 12 and older; proceeds go toward Rotary community service: its college scholarship program, the "Polio Plus" program to eradicate the disease and a "Gift of Life" fund for heart surgery for children from Third World countries.

The teams are competing for $15,500 in prize money and awards, and the public can participate by joining its Back Yard BBQ contest on Saturday or its Ancillary Cooking Contest Friday; bring an grill and your special recipe.

Craig Kroonblawd of Willingham's World Champion BBQ in Memphis, Tenn., whose barbecue shows up at the best competitions around the U.S., is among the contestants. He took time away from seasoning his ribs to answer questions about the world of barbecue.

Naples Daily News: What is the history of Willingham's World Champion BBQ?

Craig Kroonblawd: Willingham's World Champion BBQ was started in Memphis by John Willingham back in the 1980s. He won his first Memphis in May World Championship in 1983 and over the next 20 years won literally hundreds of titles. Willingham's is the only team to ever win the Memphis in May and the American Royal Invitational in Kansas City Championships back to back two years in a row in 1983 and 1984. That would be like winning the Super Bowl or World Series four times in a row. It hasn't been done since.

Mr. Willingham has a complete line of rubs (seasonings), sauces, a cookbook, a patented cooker and cooking system — he invented the indirect heat cooking method — to his name. After 20 years on the road he decided to slow down a bit and his nephew, Jon Bigalk from Annandale, Minn., picked up the reins and has taken Willingham's back out on the road doing as many as 35 events a year.

DN: Where are you from?

CK:I am from Spring Park, Minn., which is about 20 miles west of Minneapolis.

DN: How did you start barbecuing with Willingham's?

CK: I personally became involved with Willingham's though my work connections with Jon Bigalk about six years ago. Our working relationship turned into a friendship and over the past few years I've been able to work with Willingham's at several events around the country and am now bringing the business to Florida for the winter. We will be participating in events throughout the state and also in Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana before heading back to start the regular summer season in Memphis. Willingham's will visit 17 states throughout the course of the year.

DN: How difficult is it to travel so much?

CK: Well, I know that for Jon, his kids are at the age where they actually travel together as a family so it's kind of a fun way to spend the summer. When they are in school it isn't quite so simple. Luckily a majority of the shows do fall during the summer months. I, on the other hand, never did the family thing so it's a little easier to just pick and go.

The hardest part of being away all the time is that all relationships become long-distance because we are gone a lot. The positive side to it is the relationships we build with other teams that are doing just as we are. We may not see them every week but sooner or later you cross paths. It seems that most everyone out there shares the same kinds of experiences and we help each other. I think the relationships we build in the business almost act as a "support group" to keep us going.

DN: What is your secret for winning?

Willingham's BBQ grill team in action

Willingham's BBQ grill team in action

CK: The two most important things are No. 1 — our rub. It is a blend of 28 spices and imparts a flavor that is unique to Willingham's. No. 2 is our cooking method. Our cookers are patented so there are none quite like them. There are similar cookers but none that combine all the important aspects of the cooking process the way ours do.

DN: How many contests do you enter a year?

CK: Now with our winter Florida route we will do about 40 to 45.

DN: What part of the pig do you use to barbecue?

CK: For competitions there are three categories for pork: Ribs, shoulder (sometimes referred to as butt) and whole hog. We primarily just do ribs and shoulder.

DN: What sides do you like best with your ribs?

CK: It's hard to beat good old baked beans and fresh made coleslaw.

NDN: What is your perfect meal?

CK: If you are talking about barbecue it would be beef brisket. When marinated and rubbed just right and slow smoked, it is one of the best things to come out of a cooker. If we are talking outside of barbecue, nothing but nothing beats my Grandma's chicken and dumplings.

DN: How long does it take to prepare the ribs when you are getting ready for a contest?

CK: We like to season them the day prior and then rub them just before cooking.

DN: What do the judges look for during a contest?

CK: Judging is based on several factors: Appearance and if the meat is presented properly. Aroma — the meat must smell distinctly fragrant. Taste — there should be a mouthful of flavor but no one spice or herb should be individually identifiable. And texture — the meat should be chewable, not mushy or stringy — how does it come off the bone.

DN: How many miles do you travel during the year for contests?

CK: I don't know exactly, but we go from Boston to California, Minnesota to Florida and many places in between. It wouldn't surprise me to put on 30,000 miles a year.

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