“Plenty of people have come up to me and said: ‘Really? You think you can do Texas barbecue and you’re from New Jersey?’ ” said Mr. Reid, who is co-owner with his wife, Maria, of Texas Smoke B.B.Q., a restaurant and catering business in Jefferson Township.
He enjoys converting skeptics, he said, especially Texans. “They’ll go off with our ribs or a pulled-pork sandwich, and they’ll usually come back and say, ‘You know, that was really pretty good.’ ”
Mr. Reid, 51, of Denville, N.J., was working behind a barbecue pit on a Sunday afternoon last month at the third annual Rock, Ribs and Ridges Festival at the Hidden Valley Club ski resort here — one of about a half-dozen competitive barbecue events his team will enter this summer and among about a dozen held each year in New Jersey.
He is the pit master for one of about 260 teams from New Jersey registered with the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the organization that governs the most contests on the national competitive barbecue circuit, including the New Jersey State Barbecue Championship, to be held July 13 to 15 in North Wildwood.
At such events, teams — which vary widely in size — are typically confined to 20-foot-by-20-foot stations, where one or more members often camp out overnight in chairs while monitoring slow-cooking meats. They are given 10-minute windows to present judges with their chicken, ribs, pulled pork and brisket.
In addition to the state championship, three other New Jersey competitions will be sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society this year: Sam’s Club National B.B.Q. Tour, to be held at the Sam’s Club store in Pleasantville on Aug. 25; B.B.Q. and Blues in the Park, Sept. 8 and 9 in Mount Holly; and Que-by-the-Sea, Sept. 21 to 23 in Seaside Heights.
At these events, which also include live music and an open-air market, various laws prevent all but a few competitors from selling their barbecue to the public, because “most cooks have not gone through the hoops — permits, sales tax license, et cetera,” according to Carolyn Wells, a co-founder and the executive director of the Kansas City Barbeque Society. The barbecue-hungry masses can, however, buy ribs and brisket from noncompeting vendors at the contests.
Last year, 72,000 people attended the state championship in North Wildwood, according to Eric Shenkus, its chairman. Mr. Shenkus, 40, a criminal defense lawyer from Northfield, co-founded the event in 1999 as a way to raise money for the Anglesea Volunteer Fire Company, of which he is a member. (The event, which is free to the public, is run by the company, part of the North Wildwood Fire Department, in conjunction with the Anglesea Blues Festival.)
“Our first year we probably had 500 people,” Mr. Shenkus said. Now the competition is so popular that organizers run a lottery to determine which teams will be allowed to enter. This year, 150 teams from throughout the East Coast applied to fill 68 spots, with 46 New Jersey teams making the cut. Winners — in categories including chicken, pulled pork, brisket and ribs, as well as Grand Champion — are decided based on taste, tenderness and appearance by 100 judges certified by the society. Cash prizes totaling $10,000 are awarded.
The Grand Champion qualifies to compete in national championships like the American Royal World Series of Barbecue, to be held in Kansas City in October.
Compared with the state championship, the Rock, Ribs and Ridges contest in Vernon, in which four teams competed — three from New Jersey and one from New York — was a low-key event. Ticketholders, many of whom were there mainly for the rock concerts by acts including Dickey Betts and Molly Hatchet, cast ballots to judge the barbecue competitors. Mr. Reid’s team came in third and took home $200, an admittedly disappointing outcome, he said.
He entered the event mostly as practice for the state championship in North Wildwood, he said. Though he has not won a prize there in three previous tries, he is optimistic about his chances this year. “I have a game plan,” he said.
Competitive barbecue teams — sometimes restaurateurs and caterers like Mr. Reid, sometimes backyard barbecue enthusiasts, sometimes old college buddies looking for an excuse to get together on the weekends, Mr. Shenkus said — liken their pastime to a sport.
“The American Royal is the Super Bowl of competitive barbecue,” said Mr. Shenkus. The Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue, held in October in Lynchburg, Tenn., and open to only those teams that have won a championship in certain categories, is “the Super Bowl, World Series and Stanley Cup all in one,” according to Marc Mangano, one of two pit masters for Three Men and a Baby Back, a Montvale-based team that formed in 2009. It will compete in the state championship for a second time this year and has already earned a spot at this year’s American Royal Invitational; that is the more exclusive of the two prongs of the American Royal contest in Kansas City, the other being the American Royal Open.
Three Men and a Baby Back qualified for the American Royal Invitational after winning the Grand Champion title at last year’s Que-by-the-Sea event in Seaside Heights. Mr. Mangano, 39, of Hillsdale, who studied at the Culinary Institute of America but currently works as an insurance broker, said his team had its eye on a prize in North Wildwood this year.
“We were maybe a little cocky our first time there — we were coming off a big win” at a 2009 competition in Rochester, N.Y., Mr. Mangano said. “Wildwood was our second contest ever.”
What the three-year-old team learned, said Dana Reed, 39, of Montvale, the other pit master and a nurse practitioner, was that “we needed to fine-tune our recipes.”
“There were some really exceptional teams; it was humbling.” Now, he said, “we expect to do well.”
Experience may be half the battle, according to Doug Keiles, the pit master of Hillsborough-based Ribs Within.
During his first competition in 2003, which happened to be the state championship — it was easier to get into then — “I stayed up all night with the other cooks, learning about pork and brisket,” he said. Instead of smoking his own pork and brisket that year, Mr. Keiles, 48, cooked only ribs and chicken. “Then I went home and bought another smoker and practiced all year.”
By 2007, Mr. Keiles and his team were winning; they placed eighth that year in chicken and fifth in pork. He has since had top-10 showings in several individual categories, and last year won 10th overall. This year marks his team’s 10th consecutive year at the contest.
Mr. Keiles runs Ribs Within as a catering business when he is not competing, and also has a day job making maps and tracking delivery data for newspapers.
He concedes that New Jersey still flies slightly under the radar on the national barbecue circuit. “People will say, What do Northeasterners know about barbecue? They think we’re not truly steeped in the traditions,” he said. “But it’s just not the truth.”
Every year, teams from the Northeast rank among the top in the country, he said, something Ms. Wells, of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, confirmed.
Some of those same teams can be counted on to show up behind pits in North Wildwood.
“I have to face these guys that are ridiculously strong,” Mr. Keiles said. “It’s nothing but pressure.”