One weekend a year, the members of the Anglesea Fire Department see smoke rising over North Wildwood, and don’t rush to put on their turnout suits. In fact, they want to see smoke, and lots of it, because it means another full contestant roster for the New Jersey Barbecue Championship (www.njbbq.com). Since 1999, the small shore town has invited cooking teams from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and all along the mid-Atlantic to compete against one another in the largest barbeque contest in New Jersey. As one of the state championship events, the Grand Champion, who has the highest combined scores for all four categories: pork butt, ribs, chicken, and brisket, is then invited to some of the best and most competitive national competitions to represent Jersey. To do this, all of the various factors that go into producing the precise heat and the myriad of tastes must be dead on, not for just one or two categories, but for all of them. Only that team that can produce its best work, despite all of the hurdles of sleeping and cooking outside, filled with adult beverages, and balancing the energy of wood and coal will win against so many great cooks.
Bob Matteucci, a member of the Anglesea Fire Department, has overseen the organization and operation of the contest for most of its seventeen years. Originally a seafood festival, the event did not bring in the amount of people that they envisioned. So after reading a newspaper article about a barbeque contest, members of the squad began transitioning the event to its current theme. Enlisting the help of an outside promoter for the first three years, the contest took off, only limited by the space available in the parking lot next to the fire house. At that time, the lot could only hold 28 teams. Justin Drab, of Team BoyBQ, was one of the only one of this year’s competitors that was present at the very first competition. He, and others from those early years, remember the tight camaraderie of the teams in that small lot, staying up late to watch the crowds coming out of the bars at 2 am and continuing to party until dawn. Rib In and Butch’s Smack Your Lips BBQ, as vendors, have served great barbeque to the crowds since that very first event and are still cornerstones today. Five years ago, the contest moved a few blocks north to a larger lot along the sea wall that can fit 66 teams, making the event more accessible and competitive. The top two-thirds of the winning teams are given preferential registration at the next year’s event, making each consecutive year even more competitive. The teams, which originally consisted mostly of backyard warriors, now includes many caterers, restaurants, and other foodies, which has increased the challenge and has guaranteed that the certified judges get some of the best barbeque in the country.
This year, over 100,000 people attended the three-day event that celebrates barbeque and music in New Jersey. The firefighters of the Anglesea Fire Department and the visionary officials of North Wildwood have truly made an awesome event that we hope will continue far into the future. If you have not attended, be sure to keep an eye on http://www.newjerseybarbeque.com in the spring to find out the dates of next year’s contest. Find me in the big lot, eat some great barbeque, and bring your lawn chair for some kickin’ music. And a huge thanks to Bob Matteucci for taking the time to speak to me about the history of the event.