By JEAN HAVENS
Although the weather was drizzling and cool, it didn’t stop folks who were ready to make and eat chili and barbecue Saturday at the Red Fern Festival Chili Cook Off and Barbecue Extravaganza.
“This is perfect chili weather,” said Tanya Wagnon, a member of Gideon Fire and Rescue’s team.
And Wagnon was right, as guests steadily streamed in and strolled through all the lines, waiting to taste the chili and barbecue being served by contestants.
Gideon Fire and Rescue has participated in the cook off for the past three years.
When it comes to creating a chili for a contest, Wagnon said, “We do something in between spicy and mild, for everyone to eat.”
Tahlequah Fire Department’s Casey Baker said firefighters have traveled all across Oklahoma and have tasted the chili of different fire departments, learning their secret recipes.
“It took us about a year to perfect our ingredients,” Baker said. “About four years ago, we mastered it. It’s a crowd-pleaser.”
Beside their Backdraft Chili, TFD members served barbecue. They slow-cook their barbecue, smoking the meat for one-and-a-half days.
Baker said the cook-off was a good way for TFD to interact with the community. He also said it offered camaraderie with the police department.
This was the first competition for team Tahlequah’s Finest – the Tahlequah Police Department – according to Steve Arnall.
“This [the cook-off] is something we’ve thought about doing for awhile, so we finally got to it,” Arnall said.
It’s Arnall’s secret recipe and method that the TPD uses.
“I had a lot of help,” Arnall said. “We were here all night long, working the smoker.”
Arnall said he enjoys smoking meat, and he personally wanted to see where he stood among other barbecue competitors.
“The secret is slow-cooking and low temperature,” Arnall said.
A peach dry rub is used by Arnall for the baby back ribs, and a peach barbecue sauce as well. His sauce, he said, is “different.”
“The Red Fern cook-off brings the community together,” said Arnall, agreeing with Baker. “It’s a chance to meet several different people, and a chance for people to come in to show case their talents.”
Hickory Ridge BBQ team member Mickey Dixon-Sullivan said the event was a lot of fun, and he enjoyed seeing the citizens of Tahlequah turn out for the festivities.
Dixon-Sullivan said the pit master, Kenny Baskeyfield, and his team have competed in several events around the country. He and his team participate in the Red Fern cook-off to support the community, as well as to support the Wounded Warrior Project.
According to Dixon-Sullivan, aficionados look for moisture and flavor in a good barbecue.
As for the Red Fern competition, Dixon-Sullivan said the cook-off committee works very hard to make it fair and impartial.
Trae Ratliff, co-chair of the cook-off committee, said the sumptuous contest is typically one of the biggest attractions of the Red Fern Festival.
“It’s just part of the whole package,” said Ratliff. “For $7, it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet.”
According to Ratliff, $5 of the $7 charged to tasters goes to the Kiwanis Club, which will donate it to local children’s charities. The other $2 goes to Tahlequah Main Street Association, which will use it to help with defray costs of Red Fern and other events.
“We want local organizations and businesses to compete against each other. We want it [the cook-off] small, local and community-oriented,” said Ratliff.
This year’s event was moved to the lawn across the street from Norris Park. According to David Moore, co-chair of the committee, the spaciousness of the new location created an atmosphere where there was “a lot of eating and visiting going on.”
“Having the cook-off on the lawn and off the street gave it a hometown feel,” he said.
Those working the cook-off had their own criteria for what they looked for in a good chili and barbecue.
“In barbecue, I look at the texture, smell, taste, and to how it sticks to my ribs,” said Moore. “In chili, I look for the afterburn, and a little diversity. Not just meat and beans.”
Those who paid to taste and vote held a variety of opinions.
Ashli Dill said she looks for good, but mild, spices in a chili. She shared hers with her 1-year-old daughter, Jaylee.
“She likes chili,” Dill said.
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