High school competition teaches important Texas life skill — barbecue

Credit: State of Texas High School Barbe

Credit: State of Texas High School Barbe

Forget Friday night lights. How about Saturday morning smoke?

Earlier this month, high school teams from across the state competed for the crown of best pitmaster in Texas at the third annual State of Texas High School Barbecue Cook-off in Burnet, Texas. In all, 42 teams competed in 12 categories from brisket and ribs to potato salad and sauce.

“To say it’s a life skill in Texas isn’t exaggerating,” said event organizer Mike Erickson, a culinary arts teacher at Burnet High School in the Texas Hill Country.

“If you don’t know how to barbecue in Texas, something’s wrong with you.”

Erickson said the competition allows students from various areas of Career and Technical Education programs to compete as a team. Welding students construct the barbecue pits, for example, and culinary students prepare the food.

Since Erickson started the competition in 2016, the event has grown exponentially, he said. Now, some counties have smaller competitions to decide which two or three teams to send to the championship.

He says they hope to have more organized regional competitions starting next year, including one at Richardson High School.

“It’s democratic,” he said. “Every small town in Texas has the ability to compete in a barbecue cook-off.”

The event starts at 6 a.m., when students build wood fires and get the smoker warmed up. At 7 a.m., the meat has to be on the grill. The side dishes like potato salad and dessert have to be turned in by 9 a.m. Then, low and slow, the competitors nurse their smokers and wait for the meat to cook.

The teachers are allowed to stand outside the food preparation area as “pit bosses” and shout advice, but they’re not allowed to touch any part of the entry.

“It’s just like a regular adult barbecue competition,” said Alfred Ramirez, the culinary teacher at Fort Worth’s O.D. Wyatt High School.

Ramirez’s students won first place for best potato salad and best school spirit. He said the competition has even allowed some of his students to explore new college options. Samantha Ramirez, a junior at O.D. Wyatt, said she met a mentor at the competition who’s helping her find scholarships at a culinary arts school in Austin.

“I thought that would come through school,” she said. “I never expected that from a competition.”

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