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Grillers hold their meat to the fire at Arkansas steak cook-off

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The Dallas Morning News (MCT) - Come May, this small city will be smokin' as grills fire up for the 20th annual World Championship Steak Cook-Off.

Highlights

By Lisa LeVrier
McClatchy Newspapers (www.mctdirect.com)
4/27/2009 (1 decade ago)

Published in Travel

Fragrant white clouds of smoke will wreathe the downtown square, and connoisseurs and cooks of great steaks will compete for $6,600 in prize money.

The event, part of the 21st annual Magnolia Blossom Festival, begins with a parade of pits. Contestants roll their grills into the square in a good-humored procession. Some entrants perform skits in front of a panel of judges.

Then it's down to the meat to beat.

Competitors may win honors in any of the cook-off's four categories: parade, showmanship, rig construction and, of course, grilling steaks.

Cooks are handed their requested quantity of rib-eye steaks, some teams receiving as few as 30 steaks, others getting up to 100. Each steak is a 16-ounce, 1 Ľ-inch-thick slab of Angus beef. Last year, 5,000 steaks went to the pits.

With their rigs set up, the master grillers begin marinating their meat, with many of them boasting about their special blends and techniques. At 3:30 p.m., grillers are allowed to officially start their coals or, in some cases, a mixture of coals and woods such as pecan, hickory and mesquite.

The 2008 contest drew two teams from the Dallas area: Gary Kelley's "Smoker Ace and the Bandits" from McKinney and Jonathan Pydyn's "Soul of a Fat Man" from Arlington.

"We're both skinny, but we love to eat like a fat man," Pydyn's stepfather, Ray LaDriere, said in explaining the team's name.

Fat Man practiced six weeks for the competition, and the family team finalized its cooking plan using a combination of charcoal and pecan wood for its 100 steaks in the competition.

Smoker Ace is a longtime competitor in cook-offs, whipping up dishes ranging from chili to salmon. Of the 90 steaks Smoker grilled, Kelley picked the best 10 for judging.

"I base the top 10 steaks by look, cut, thickness and marbling," he said of his selection method.

Both teams were first-timers in the competition, and both went home empty-handed in the steak competition. But Kelley won third place in the parade category. His teammate and wife, Cheryl, was a parade crowd-pleaser, costumed as a chicken named Sally Monella and carrying a sign saying, "Eat more beef."

Both team captains said they would like to return for a rematch.

Behind every master griller is a pit, and while some are standard backyard models, others are extensively tricked-out, including one at last year's cook-off that resembled a train.

Contestants' sizzlers face tough scrutiny.

"All steaks are judged on taste, appearance, doneness, overall impression and tenderness," said cook-off chairman David Nelson.

While the judges are sniffing, tasting and eyeballing the competing steaks, long lines form for the steak dinners that will follow. After receiving their plates of side dishes, each ticket-holder walks around the square and chooses one steak from any of the cook-off entrants.

After the crowd is fed, they lean back and enjoy a concert, part of the Magnolia Blossom Festival. This year's headliner will be country-music artist Aaron Tippin.

The weekend festival drew 30,000 last year to this far-southwestern Arkansas community of 11,000.

When the smoke cleared, Johnny Joseph of El Dorado, Ark., collected the title as champ.

The steak cook-off began as a gathering of friends organized by lifelong area resident O.A. "Buddy" Franks. It has become a grilling competition consisting of 62 teams from the United States and Canada.

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IF YOU GO:

The Magnolia Blossom Festival will be May 15-16. The World Championship Steak Cook-Off will be May 16. The parade starts at 10 a.m.; dinner, at 6 p.m. Cook-off tickets are $15. Buy online (handling fee) or by calling the Chamber of Commerce (870-234-4352). Magnolia is four hours northeast of the Dallas area. Details: www.blossomfestival.org.

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© 2009, The Dallas Morning News.

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