In the thick sea of luxury RVs, scrappy trailers, tent awnings and dwindling daylight, I found Tom McIntosh of Appleton. The flapping Green Bay Packers flag at his base camp was a dead giveaway on these 20 acres of concrete in Kansas City.
Tom was here to cook this month but didn’t expect to smoke out almost all competitors at the annual American Royal World Series of Barbecue. No other barbecue contest in the world is bigger.
“Taste and tenderness — you gotta rock those two” to stand out, he explained evasively during the twilight hours of slow-and-low roasting, his third American Royal experience.
This pitmaster for one of 563 teams left as a big winner: runner-up (Reserve Grand Champion) in the 174-team invitational division. Only six points (of a possible 720) separated his T-Mac Smokin BBQ Team from the winner, Cool Smoke of Virginia.
Total points are the sum of four meat scores, and T-Mac Smokin’s beef brisket rated a perfect 180 to earn a second trophy. The team’s pork ribs rated sixth, and with these high rankings came about $8,000 in prize money.
“I’m probably as surprised as you,” Tom admits. “I had to take a good look at those (50-pound) trophies the next morning, to make sure this was real.”
He entered meats from Niemuth’s Southside Market in Appleton. His winning combinations of sauce, injections and marinades “are very secret, even more so now,” but Penzeys Spices and Appleton’s Stone Cellar beer figure into the mix.
“It is a balancing act of all of them working in concert to allow saltiness, heat, sweetness, tanginess and stickiness,” Tom offers. The ultimate goal: “fingerlickability that still allows the meat flavor profile to pull through.”
T-Mac Smokin qualified for the invitational after winning the 2012 Death’s Door Barbecue on Washington Island, sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society.
Tom is a backyard grillmaster who with wife Becky took their hobby to the next level by joining Appleton’s Smokin’ Good BBQ Club around 2009, after son Ian and daughter Danielle became adults.
They have entered 30 barbecue contests in four years. Their 4-year-old Yorkie-Shitsu is named Brisket. On their trailer is an altered Scottish family crest that makes room for a Celtic bull and chicken.
“My neighbors have long appreciated T-Mac barbecue,” Tom admits. So has their congregation at St. Pius X Catholic Church, where he began cooking for church picnics as part of the Holy Smokers.
T-Mac Smokin uses a WoodMaster Pellet Grill, and grill designer Jeff Poole is part of the team’s core. Tom is a grill dealer. Culinary program grad Paul Wenzel offered an assist in Kansas City with two side dishes (baked beans and asparagus spears), both of which contained Nueske’s meats from Wittenberg.
Tom’s American Royal team also entered the open division, finishing 20th of 535 teams overall, and the brisket placed fifth. He describes American Royal, with a grin, as “a barbecue freak show” and “end-of-the-year run for us” after competing in 11 other contests this year.
Nearly 50,000 spectators per day attend the World Series of Barbecue for the smoky aromas, music, fireworks, cooking demos and private parties or just to stroll, gawk, drink and eat. Samples of contestants’ entries are not sold or (officially) fed to the public.
Crowds are shooed away by 2 a.m., but for serious contestants or partiers — who come from as far away as Australia and The Netherlands — it can be an all-night affair to hope for the best while babysitting brisket, pork ribs, chicken and pork butt/picnic/shoulder.
The nonprofit event began in 1980 and happens on the first weekend of October. (kcbs.us, americanroyal.com, 816-221-9800.)