With over a quarter-million attendees, the Houston Rodeo’s World Championship Barbecue Cook-off is the nation’s largest such competition. On my first visit to the Rodeo in 2002, having been immediately seduced by the glorious aroma of meat sizzling over a wood fire, I couldn’t wait to ask which booths were giving away free samples. 

Folks laughed. None of them, I was told. For lunch, I joined the rest of the general public in a giant tent, where we were served canned beans, mass-produced potato salad, and some sorry meat scraps the competitors were forced to donate.  

You have to have a wristband, the veterans told me. What I didn’t know at the time: cook-off booths rent for thousands of dollars at the World Championship Barbecue Cook-off, with each barbecue team required to carry a million-dollar liability policy. To cover these costs, they have to acquire corporate sponsors, who use the tents for private bashes. 

In short, it’s extremely tough to get a wristband. You have to know someone. If you do manage to score one—and I suggest hitting up friends and relatives who work at the city’s large companies—you get to eat as much amazing barbecue as a person could want. The booze is free too, and it’s not unusual to see a famous country music star playing inside one of the tents. 

Cook-offs like these used to be populist affairs, but not anymore. Oh, well—if you can manage to get in, it’s a hell of a party.

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