Downtown Bel Air will be sizzling during the 10th annual Maryland BBQ Bash, the annual street festival and competition with $12,500 in prizes. The two-day event, which opens Friday, has attracted the four-time world champion griller, several chefs with the coveted "pitmaster" title and dozens of others, all determined to take the state title.
"There will be a whole lot of cooking going on," said Craig Ward, founder and chairman of the event. "This is a great way to get people to our historic downtown."
The free festival, which is expected to draw about 25,000, starts off with Friday's tailgate challenge, a contest in which about 40 amateurs will be taking on spareribs.
The more seasoned grillers take the stage Saturday.
Starting at noon, they will submit the best samples of their barbecued chicken, ribs, pork and brisket to judges certified by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. Most will have been cooking all night, adhering to the society's standards and filling the air with alluring scents.
"We start cooking the big meats Friday night," said George Hensler, a Street resident who leads the Who Are Those Guys team of five, a group that has been on the competition circuit for about five years. Most of the chefs arrived Thursday to prepare.
Hensler, who started with the tailgate competition in 2003 and then moved up to big leagues, has corralled a few trophies but has never won in his home county. He is so serious about the contest that he has had prime beef shipped overnight from a ranch in Texas.
"If you buy low quality, no matter how long you cook it, it still comes out low quality," he said. "The running joke is that we spend hundreds to win a $6 plastic pig. But nobody is in this to make money."
A real estate appraiser when not tending the grill, Hensler said his stiffest competition is Myron Mixon of Unadilla, Ga., chief cook of Jack's Old South Bar-B-Que and a frequent guest on the Food Network. In May, Mixon won his fourth world championship in Memphis, Tenn., and he has also taught many of his fellow competitors.
"Several of the teams have been to my cooking school in Unadilla," Mixon said. "There is a good possibility I could be beaten by one of my own students."
Hensler, who placed 14th last year, is among those who have been to the school.
"We all have to bring our A game," Hensler said. "We are cooking against a lot of guys who are really good."
The county health department's regulations deter competitors from selling what they cook or offering samples. They submit only a small — and the tastiest — portion of their grilled meats to judges. The leftovers go home with them.
"My team used to fight over who could take the leftovers," Hensler said. "Now, after days up to our necks in barbecue, all you want is a crab cake, a pizza or a salad — anything but barbecue."
But hungry festival-goers need not fret: Dozens of other cooks will be grilling and serving, said Scott Walker, director of the Bel Air Downtown Alliance. And it's not all about food: There's a farmers' market, craft booths, a children's area and live music.