Ah, the Port City RibFest. Where the air fills with sweet, smoky aromas of slow-cooked meats, and everyone can hold their BBQ-slathered faces high. It’s almost here. From August 5-7, North Waterfront Park (1000 N. Front St.) will bustle with barbecue, music and activities for all ages.
For Port City RibFest organizer Allen McDavid, his favorite part of putting together this weekend of food, festivities and family fun is Saturday evening. All the judging has finished and McDavid can relax. “I can have a beer and listen to some music,” he says.
Eight contestants will serve up some competitive ‘cue at this year’s festival. Newcomers include Pork Brothers from Indiana, Jack on the Bone and Sgt. Oink’s BBQ, both from Ohio, Fat Boy’s BBQ from Clayton, NC, and Flyin J’s BBQ out of Georgia. Texas Pit BBQ, Wilmington’s Poor Piggy’s and Billy Ray’s BBQ all return to round out the list.
“Texas Pit BBQ, last year’s Grand Champion, have set the standard for consistency of quality on the RibFest circuit,” McDavid says, “which is really more important than the judging of a single rack of ribs.”
This will be the first time a NC-based ribfest will have three competitors from its home state. Poor Piggy’s opened its first mobile food unit in 2011 in Wilmington and has grown from there. They joined the ribfest community in 2013, starting with Twin City RibFest competition in Winston-Salem, and in 2015 traveled from South Carolina to Pennsylvania, North Carolina to Ohio, and even all the way up to Burlington, Ontario, Canada. While across the border, they won First Place Best Judged Ribs.
Billy Ray’s BBQ won the “Home Boy” trophy last year, which was based on the highest judges’ score among local NC entrants. “They bested Poor Piggy’s,” McDavid adds. “Pitmaster Doug Turley recently closed his restaurant in town to concentrate solely on participating in the RibFest Circuit.”
There’s more to the Port City RibFest than side-sticking ribs. What makes this fourth annual event more distinguished from the “run-of-the-mill BBQ event,” according to McDavid, are the entertainment opportunities and vendors. “In addition to the Squidling Brothers Sideshow, pirate magician Captain Jim will host his own stage,” McDavid explains. “Joining Captain Jim as a new addition is Special Head, an illusionist who amazed the panel and audience on the TV show, ‘America’s Got Talent.’ The [RibFest] Marketplace this year will have over 40 vendors, including Going Local Art from Wilmington. I really like their concept.”
Going Local NC is the latest art gallery to open up on Front Street in downtown Wilmington earlier this year. They feature artisans from all over the state, including original art, jewelry, metal work, clothing, pottery, and more.
As always there will be a judges panel made up of a combination of local food-centric professionals, local media celebrities, KCBS-trained judges, and “just plain folks” from the festival’s Facebook family. “This year’s panel includes WWAY TV’s Randy Aldridge, international comedian and foodie Basile and chef Fanny Slater.”
This isn’t Slater’s first rodeo, so to speak. A local food writer—and contributing writer to encore’s sister publication, Devour—Slater recently published her first cookbook “Orange, Lavender & Figs” after winning Rachael Ray’s Great American Cookbook Competition in 2014. She also was among the judges at the ILM Wine & Food Fest earlier this year.
“I’ve never been so full!” she remembers. “The wine judging was (of course) a blast, and the Grand Tasting even was all about chef’s showing off their best creations in a small bite.”
She learned a lot about scoring dishes on presentation, of which she says some were mind-blowing, while others looked carelessly thrown together by contrast. Slater says for the BBQ fest, the judging process really can boil down to the best bite. “In the end, your job that day is to eat,” she adds. “It’s a win-win.”
Though she’s been a Wrightsville Beach girl since she was 4 years old, Slater grew up in Raleigh and her family is from up north. “That being said, our comfort foods come from a Jewish deli, not a smokehouse,” she admits. “Regardless, I still grew up eating my way through the Carolinas, which meant I ran into a lot of ribs. Now, as a cookbook author and food writer, it’s part of my job to write countless articles and do infinite research on coast-to-coast BBQ. I’m no Ed Mitchell, but I know my pork butt.”
While she’s been preparing for quality BBQ by investing stretchy pants, the judge admits she’ll be looking for a balance of textures at the RibFest. Crisp, caramelized char on the exterior with an interior that’s moist and bursting with smoke is ideal.
“Too much crispy results in an overcooked rib,” she explains, “and rubbery is typically a result of not achieving a solid sear (or crust from low-and-slow cooking). . . . I adore condiments, so I’m a sauce girl all the way. I do believe dry rubs often produce more intense, complex flavor, but I just happen to be saucy. Sorry not sorry?”
Anyone making plans to stop by the Port City RibFest this weekend can catch a ride on the free downtown trolley, located at Stop 8. Also check the front of this encore for a sticker worth $2 off admission.