By Thomas Simpson
TUPELO – Denny Waite enjoys this time of year. He and his group of friends usually get together to cook out and swap recipes. One of his favorite hobbies, however, is cooking competitions.
Waite and his friends are a part of the All-America City Hoggers, a local barbecue cooking team consisting mainly of employees from city hall, the parks and recreation and other offices.
The team is participating in the seventh annual BBQ Duel, where they placed second in the chicken competition in 2015. Waite said the team has competed in other events in the area, but they always hear from others about the competition in Tupelo.
“We’ve been doing this for seven years since its inception,” Waite said. “It’s a great annual event and we always look forward to having it. It’s a fun hobby where we get to hang out and feed the family and friends.”
The BBQ Duel, the signature fundraiser for the Link Centre, was chosen as a Top 4 Best BBQ Festival by USA Today last year. The cooking competition was nominated by an “expert panel” among other festivals, and then voted into winner spots by the public.
Bev Crossen has been the event coordinator since its inception. She said the competition has enjoyed so much success due to the sponsors and the teams who keep coming back.
“We’ve been doing this for so long, it feels like a reunion each year,” Crossen said. “There’s something special about that.”
The event began Friday and runs through today, with cooking competitions on Saturday and today. Teams can enter food into four separate categories: chicken, rib, pork and brisket.
The food is judged based on appearance and taste, and there is over $25,000 in cash awards at stake.
“We love this event, it’s one of the best in the country,” Shawn Palmer, cook for Magnolia Meat Masters, said. “We cook brisket, ribs, chicken and pork butts, but specialize in chicken and ribs.”
Magnolia Meat Masters is a Tupelo-based team consisting of employees from Magnolia Business Center. The team finished top 10 in chicken in 2015.
“This is our sixth year, and my fourth year as the cook,” Palmer said. “I work for Magnolia Business Center and sell chicken for a living, but this is just a hobby.”
There’s more to the festival than just barbecue.
Crossen and her team sign up local musicians to perform on Fridays and Saturdays. Food vendors are set up for people to purchase concessions as well.
“Most people assume you can walk up to cooking teams and try their food, but these teams are cooking food to enter into the competition,” Crossen said. “We wanted to add a sort of festival atmosphere, where we have food, music and games available to the public.”
While the event is considered one of the best barbecue festivals in the country, Crossen said the Link Centre is always trying to come up with ways to improve the experience for everyone.
“This year, we included more art vendors, where we had a tent set up for local artists to display their work,” Crossen said. “We always try to build up the children’s area to add more family fun. I feel like the cooking competition is great, but we are still trying to improve more on the festival side.”