This weekend marks the start of the Pacific Northwest BBQ Association's championship season, a milestone that's observed by remarkably few smoked-meat enthusiasts.
While the Pacific Northwest BBQ Association is the nation's second-oldest barbecue association, its membership list is relatively minuscule. The group has 850 members, while the Kansas City Barbecue Society--which sanctions contests across the barbecue belt--boasts 12,000 members.
"We have good cooks here," James Jones, event director for the Sky Valley BBQ Championship, says. "We're just stuck in the Pacific Northwest, where barbecue is not the center of the universe."
Still, Jones says the group's small size has advantages.
"Our membership is more close-knit," says Jones, who's been impressed by his fellow competitors' civility. Jones cooks with his wife and two daughters, and says the regional association has been welcoming in ways organizations with bloated membership rolls can't match.
"We're Christian, so we don't want to be around rough, rowdy people who cuss all the time," Jones says. "We really want to hang out with people who are pleasant."
But the competitive barbecue circuit isn't all Kumbaya: The 39 teams registered for the Sky Valley BBQ Championship at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds are battling to secure a spot in a national cook-off. The Pacific Northwest BBQ Association annually hosts about a dozen qualifying events, in which the grand champion's eligible for invites to prestigious competitions such as the American Royal.
While Sky Valley's a brand-new event, it's the first official qualifier of the year.
"There's a lot of excitement in barbecue circles," Jones says.
Organizers have also tried to make the event exciting for spectators: Nearly half the teams will offer samples to the public, who will be invited to participate in "people's choice" judging. In addition to smoking the standard pig and cow parts, teams will also have the option of competing in categories including sauce and mystery-meat chili, for which organizers provide the protein and salmon.
According to Jones, only about 15 percent of Pacific Northwest BBQ Association events include a salmon category. "A lot of cooks don't like to cook it because of the oil," he explains.
The festival will coincide with a number of other events at the fairgrounds, including a vintage car race. Jones predicts the confluence should help boost attendance.
"The expected turnout is 10,000 people," he says. "It should be a lot of fun."