GRILL IT GOOD

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Lysandra Ohrstrom heads to North Carolina for a taste of one of America's fastest-growing sports ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

John Childers would look out of place on any conventional sports team. Aged 57, he has a protruding belly, a long, thick, white beard and an even thicker southern accent. He calls women ma’am and his speech is scattered with words like poh-leese, Illinoize and North ‘Arolina. Childers (pictured top) tells jokes that are dirty—“What's a Yankee? The string at the end of a tampon"—and others that are too racist to repeat. His political views would repel a member of the tea party. President Obama is a particularly sensitive subject. "I wouldn't assassinate him,” Childers joked. “But I'd dig the hole.”
 
These comments may be offensive, but Childers manages to blunt them with friendliness and a deadpan wit. He both embodies and teases at every stereotype of the American South, but somehow hasn’t become a caricature himself. He fits right in to the irreverent, smoky, boozy circuit of one of the country’s fastest-growing sports: competitive barbecue.
 
For the past 15 years Childers has entered his team, Pigs in Heat, in at least a dozen barbecue competitions across the country each season, which usually runs from May to October. On a recent weekend in June he hitched his custom-designed wood smoker (with the Pigs in Heat insignia carved onto its door) to an elaborate trailer hand-painted by two of his “girlfriends”, and drove from Taccoa, Georgia, to Tryon, North Carolina, to compete in the Blue Ridge Barbecue Festival for the sixth year in a row. 
 
“If I miss one, it won’t be this one,” Childers said about two hours before contestants submitted the first of four meats to the judges. “I've made friends here that I cook all over the union with. You see 'em here and six months later you cook with the same guys in Texas. I’ve never met but one enemy. He was from Texas. But I won’t mention no name. I’ve had 15 years cookin' and only one man made me mad."
 
Childers has never taken a trophy home from the Blue Ridge contest in any of the four official meat categories—chicken, pork ribs, pork and brisket. But if there was an award for the best grill-pit in the competition grounds, known as Hog Heaven, he might be the reigning champion. His oversized RV is covered in pastoral murals of rolling green hills and frolicking farm animals. An image of intersecting Confederate and American flags is painted on the rear above the inscription: "Remember our Fallen Brothers." The paint job cost Childers about "182 cases of beer”, because that’s how much he and “the girls” drank while they talked about their plan for the exterior.
 
Making an impression in a field of barbecue trailers is no small feat, especially among more than 70 teams with names like “Too Bad You're My Cousin”, “Swine-O”, “Que’n Stew’n & Brew’n”, and “The Bottle Let Me Down”. Plenty of custom-designed insignias were stencilled onto trailers and grills, and some tents bore banners with witty slogans, such as "You can lick our chicken but...you can't beat our butts!" Some teams paid homage to a higher power in their RV design schemes, such as the Tarheel Smokers, whose trailer was decorated with a big biblical scroll and the words “God’s Ultimate Gift to the World was his son Jesus Christ”. But for a competition in the heart of the Bible Belt, God and politics were surprisingly absent.

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