It looked like an ordinary lakeside park that had an acute infestation of summer weekend campers. But there was something different about this place, an intangible aura that permeated the air. Specifically, a thin blue smoke infused with the distinct fragrance of yumminess hung over the park.
In a very happy accident, my wife and I had found the barbecuing contest known as Cookin' On Kampeska.
Following our noses, we wandered into the park. Numerous campers peppered the grounds, many of them with an industrial-sized barbecue pit parked nearby. The wondrous aromas wafting on the breeze caused me to salivate so much that I nearly fainted because of the loss of fluids.
I find barbecuing both fascinating and delicious, an occult art that a guy can spend an entire lifetime mastering. As such, I am always eager to learn and to taste.
I stopped at the campsite occupied by Terry Gerrit and his family, who hail from Huron, S.D. At the heart of The Gerrit Boys barbecue pit was a 500-gallon propane tank. I remarked that it must have been interesting when the tank felt the first kiss of a cutting torch.
"It started out as a new tank, so it's never held propane," Terry assured me.
I asked Terry how long his family had been barbecuing competitively.
"We started in 2008," he said, offering me a sample of sumptuous pork shoulder. "We won the state grand championship in 2011, which earned us a trip to the American Royal BBQ in Kansas City."
I asked him if there was a secret to top-notch barbecue.
"Not really. Barbecuing is a work in progress. If there was a formula that was a sure thing, we would have won grand champion every year instead of just once!" he said.
Wandering farther, I came across a barrel-type smoker that was installed neatly on a platform at the rear of a camper. Its owners were Mike and Cheryl Wozniak of Peoria, Ill. After chatting with them a bit, I asked if they had a prescription for barbecuing success.
"The secret is to barbecue every weekend," said Mike. "We travel all over the nation to participate in barbecue contests."
"The judges' tastes are always evolving, so your barbecue has to evolve along with them," added Cheryl.
Off to one side, I saw a banner that read Electric Smoke. Under a nearby tent shelter, a crew was busily preparing pulled pork. I had to ask the obvious: how do you get smoke from electricity?
"All of our smokers burn wood pellets and are powered by electricity," replied one of the guys.
How long had they been doing this competitive barbecuing thing?
"This is our first year. We're just hoping to produce something that isn't too bad. Winning isn't even on our radar!"
A large tent had been set up in the center of the park for the barbecue judging. I peeked in and saw rows of tables where the somber-faced judges sat, quietly nibbling smoked delicacies. The atmosphere was as solemn as a funeral parlor.
Nearby was a rib-selling booth called Heck's Dakota Style BBQ. I saw something on its sign about barbecuing with corncobs and was instantly intrigued.
Jody Harnois of Vermillion, S.D., was the proprietor of the booth. When I inquired about the corncobs, he broke into a broad smile.
"My grandfather Heck Harnois started barbecuing ribs with corncobs 70 years ago," he said. "Grandpa was originally from Salina, Kansas. He came to South Dakota with a secret recipe for the barbecue sauce that we still use."
Jody seemed talkative, so I asked him if he could share some hints for barbecuing ribs.
"There are four key elements," he said. "First, use a good rub. Second, use a good marinade. The third is to mop the ribs with a good sauce while they smoke. The fourth is to cook them low and slow and have a ton of patience."
Seems like his secret sauce is an integral part of that process.
"Grandpa was literally on his deathbed when he finally gave the sauce recipe to Dad. And Mom didn't give me the recipe until shortly before Dad passed away. That recipe is so secret, I don't even let the dog see it!" he said.
Jody proudly showed me his smoker, a refrigerator-sized stainless steel cabinet that had rotating trays for the meat and a firebox down below. This high-tech marvel, which was purchased on eBay, appeared to handle old-fashioned corncobs very nicely.
My mouth watered with curiosity regarding how corncob smoked ribs taste, so I purchased some of Jody's product. And I must say, I cannot recall when learning something new was quite so scrumptious.