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BBQ Tour Stop #18: Sparks, NV

September 16, 2010
After almost 5,500 miles since we left home, Chris and I finally pulled into the Biggest Little City in the World (or should I say the Little City next to the Biggest Little City in the World?), which is Sparks, NV – home to the 22nd Annual John Ascuaga’s Nugget Rib Cookoff! We drove directly from Salem, OR to Sparks, stopping only to clean the bugs off the trailer and ‘pretty it up’ for the six-day event. By then it was dark, so we parked the truck and trailer in a parking lot and got some well-deserved rest.

The Nugget Rib Cook-Off is not like most KCBS events that we attend. While it is similar to the Exchange Club’s Ribfest or to the Columbus Jazz and Ribfest, nothing really compares to the hundreds of thousands of people who attend or to the almost 100 tons of ribs that are consumed over the long six-day Labor Day holiday event! The event covers 5 to 6 blocks of Victorian Avenue, and after we set up at the East end of the event, we helped set up the 24 cook teams, hundreds of crafters, and a parking lot full of carnival rides.

Each day, the sun went over the casino at about 6:20 p.m., so we planned our evening demonstrations for 6:30 p.m. to ensure enthusiastic crowds. The people didn’t disappoint! They quickly filled our chairs and any available ground seating ready to enjoy learning new ways to improve their BBQ and grilling skills.  Since this is the third year that the BBQ Tour has attended the Nugget Rib Cook-Off, folks came back to us to check out new and old sponsors alike! Everyone enjoyed last year’s Zesty Lemon Pepper seasoning grinders from Weber, and we found that they were equally pleased with this year’s multiple seasoning samples, as well as Master of Mixes’ great drinks. As we cut up samples on the stage to serve out to the public, our friends at Memphis Championship BBQ brought over a tray of fried dill pickles for folks to taste, and not to be outdone, Checkered Pig also brought over some hush puppies. Every BBQ team brings a local favorite side dish to sell along with cases and cases of ribs. The Aussom Aussie team even had shrimp “on the Barbie” for sale at their booth.

This was also the first event that we attended with Butch’s Smack Your Lips BBQ team since the passing of founder Butch Lupinetti. As we were setting up, we visited with his crew and expressed our sorrow and respect for Butch. One afternoon, I saw some folks walking by with bright yellow armbands that said “Butch,” so I ran down to see if I could get one also to show our support. The lady I met pulled hers off her arm and gave it to me to wear. Later in the week, that same lady brought over one of Butch’s DVDs and wanted Chris and I to have it. In visiting, she introduced herself as Butch’s wife Lynne and told us the story of Butch cancelling a show to take his family to Italy in celebration of his daughter’s high school graduation. Chris and I both teared up and gave her a huge hug. Lynne showed tremendous strength through the event, and it was great to see how much Butch was loved by everyone. At the awards, it was proven once again as Butch’s Smack Your Lips BBQ was announced one of the top three teams in the People’s Choice category. Willingham’s BBQ and Bone Daddy’s BBQ were also in this category, with Best in the West Winner Bone Daddy’s taking home the People’s Choice Award and the overall award as Best in the West!

Early in the week, we were also introduced to Billy Bones – Bill Wall of Bone Daddy’s BBQ’s father. He was waiting for the “Legend” Mike Mills of Peace, Love and Barbecue and his daughter Amy, who happened to be in Sparks supporting his Memphis Championship BBQ team. It was nice to chat about BBQ and make new friends. We also got to visit with some old friends of ours named Tommy and Lisa Houston. It was actually in Sparks two years ago that Tommy and Lisa of Checkered Pig took Chris and I under their wings for our first “Nugget” experience, and this year, they invited us over for an evening of prime rib along with Lisa’s homemade coleslaw. 

After visiting with old and new friends, I was asked to judge the final table of award-winning ribs and sauce. The Nugget staff pulls the same ribs off the cookers that are served up to the public for judging, which truly makes this the best representation of what the public is eating. Each cooker is given half of a numbered ticket, while the other half is taped onto the full pan of ribs. Just like KCBS, the pan is then given a “blind” number so there can be no collusion. Each rib is judged on a 10-point scale for appearance and doneness with a 20-point scale for taste. The judges score each rib individually and then everyone waits to find out whose ticket belongs to the winning ribs on Monday afternoon. It really is neat to see all the pitmasters come together at the awards stage congratulating each other on a fantastic week, all hoping that their ticket will be the last one announced! John Ascuaga, his daughter Michonne and his son Stephen, along with their wonderful staff, have made the Nugget Rib Cookoff the premier event it has grown to be during their 22-year run!

Until next time – Mike & Chris

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