Pale blue smoke rose over the Sumter Fairgrounds at 8 a.m. Saturday as dozens of firefighters watched their barbecue pork butts finish cooking. The firefighters had been up all night slowly cooking the meat, hoping to win the trophy and bragging rights for having the best barbecue in the 2017 Capt. Tom Garrity Firefighters BBQ Challenge.
"These guys take this challenge very seriously," Mike Wright of the Southern Barbecue Network told his team of judges. "They win no money - just a big trophy."
Rivalry is intense, he continued.
"They do this only once a year," he said.
SBN judges from across the state prepared themselves as individual serving boxes of pork barbecue - and later, ribs - were brought to their tables for judging. This was serious business for them, too. Barbecue was judged on four criteria: appearance, aroma/taste, texture and tenderness.
The judges did not confer - most took pains to hide their scores.
When the judging was done and most of the blue smoke had cleared, Will Fort announced the winners.
Taking first place in the firefighters' challenge was Wedgefield Fire Department. Beech Creek FD in Stateburg took People's Choice.
In Friday's Anything Butt competition, judged only by those attending, Big Red Cowboys received the People's Choice trophy.
The big winners, however, were those who strolled among the booths tasting the firefighters' barbecue, seasoned by their secret recipes, and the local chapter of the American Red Cross, who received the proceeds.
Fort promised an even bigger event for 2018.