WINNSBORO — Consistency and practice allowed Fairfield County to once again boast being the place where the King of Barbecue in South Carolina was raised.
Pit master George King of the Can’t Quit Smoking barbecue team flexed his “money muscles” to win the S.C. State Championship again this year. After a third place finish in 2010, he has taken the top prize each of the last two years.
King began cooking barbecue at age 17 when he helped J.W. Joy cook barbecue at a Labor Day lake house party. That night he basically kept the fire going, but he learned a lot from Joy. Joy has a basement room full of his own barbecue trophies though he does not compete as much anymore. He does, however, prepare barbecue to benefit a Columbia area children’s home each year.
“We keep our meat for four hours in the smoke,” he said. “Then we wrap it in foil and let it sit for two hours before putting it back into the smoke.”
When he takes the meat off the pit, he slices some and he takes the meat from the “money muscle,” the pit master term for the best part of a Boston butt and uses a fork to make pulled pork. King also cooks ribs in the competitions.
Four years ago he finished fourth in the amateur division at Pig on the Ridge.
“At that time I thought (myself and teammate Gary Freeman) might be on to something,” King said.
He decided to step it up a notch. The professional competition is where the big boys go to see what their pork is made of. If a pit master has competed in two or fewer professional contests, he or she can go back and compete at the amateur level, though.
King tried the professional division at a Saluda Shoals event in Irmo and finished fourth. A second place finish and a People’s Choice Award at two other competitions got him hooked on competing.
The barbecue season runs from January to December with the first competition occurring the last week in February. In each event, the top 10 finishers receive points in increments of two with the highest score of 20 going to the first place finisher.
At the end of the season, the point totals are calculated and a winner is declared. Both of his winning years King has had 242 total points. This year the competition gained ground, though. The second place finisher, Up in Smoke, a cooking team headed by Brian Teigue of Rock Hill, earned 232 points, up from 192 a year earlier when he also finished second.
King and his team had the highest score of the more than 200 teams that competed statewide in 30 barbecue contests for the title. The S.C. Barbecue Association presented each of the three teams with three awards and cash prizes.
Jeff Smith of Aiken, as the pit master of Smokin’ Stacks BBQ Team, was the second runner up. This was Smith’s first time in the top three. King did not mind sharing some of his tips for this article, but noted there is a knack to barbecue that goes beyond a special recipe secret.
“One thing to tell people who think they’d like to do this is that they had better have a thick wallet, because it costs lots of money,” King said.
Fortunately for him, the professional level carries twice the prize money as the amateur level and he has won the top prize before. The competitions supply the meat but most have $250 entry fees. That is on top of expenses for gas and charcoal. He is now sponsored by Oak Ridge Barbecue Rub in Missouri, so that helps make it feasible for him keep his competitive edge.
King bought a backwoods party grill smoker, and he said it works so well because the fire never touches the meat. The apparatus uses a smoke box and indirect heat to slow cook the pork and give it its signature taste. It takes him eight to 10 hours to cook the barbecue. His friends often are beneficiaries of his practice runs, because they buy the practice meat from him.
For the judges he prepares a sweet, tomato-based sauce but for the public, he typically serves a sweet mustard sauce. This year his efforts earned him an 11th place finish at Pig on the Ridge. King performed so well at the contests he entered (there were 30 statewide), that the S.C. Barbecue Association declared him the statewide winner, an authority given the organization by the S.C. Legislature.
The state barbecue championship has been a project of the S.C. Barbecue Association, which set it up and administered it. Approximately 200 teams statewide earned points in the 2012 competition and their scores can be found at scbarbeque.com.
“Almost anyone can win one contest somewhere sometime, but who is the unquestioned best? That’s always another question,” said Lake High of Columbia, president of the S.C. Barbecue Association. “This year it’s George King of Winnsboro. He’s demonstrated it over and over. And to prove that his barbecue abilities are no fluke, George was also the number one pit master last year too.”
South Carolina’s barbecue championship competition was the first in the nation where teams compete in a year-long barbecue marathon. Now other states are adopting this format as a true test of cooking ability.
“These three teams are truly the best of the best,” said High. “They faced stiff competition from some of the best barbecue cookers from all over the South. Their accumulated scores show that they consistently cook top barbecue.”
It’s only human for some South Carolinians to think the best barbecue comes from their part of the state, but as High points out, great barbecue can be found all parts of the state.
“If anyone thinks that good barbecue comes from only one area of the state they need to take a look at the hometowns of these championship teams – Winnsboro, Rock Hill and Aiken, from one side of the state to the other,” High pointed out.
Well done, Winnsboro. Once again you have a champion to call your own.