The Edgewood CTE students agree that the barbecue competitions have taught them how to work together with a team and the skills required to prep and cook — under the pressure of time limits and the elements — using live fire and smoke. “I didn’t realize how technical and how precise it actually has to be until actually practicing and getting the critiques back,” said Hannah McMullan, a junior whose mother, Janell, is a teacher at Madison and the faculty sponsor of the team.
The Cowboy Smokers, made up of students who attend the school’s Agriscience Magnet Program, were named 2022 national BBQ champions following a contest last May. The entire group won scholarships from Sullivan University in Kentucky.
The National High School Barbecue Association is in its eighth year, having gotten its start at Burnet High School northwest of Austin in 2014 and expanding to about 300 high school teams in six states so far. The program is an extracurricular activity and is often part of a school’s culinary arts department or vocational and agriculture programs like Future Farmers of America.
Michael Erickson, the president and founder of the National High School Barbecue Association, states, “It started as just a simple, fun thing to get kids engaged,” said Erickson, who also teaches culinary arts at Burnet. “The industry is really supportive because they want to see us teach the next generation of Texans to barbecue and how to grill and how to tailgate.”
It also brings families together, especially “a lot of male role models that traditionally wouldn’t engage with high school kids, because the moms are usually doing that,” he said. “It’s getting dads and uncles and grandfathers back on high school campuses to work with kids.”
The association that runs the contests has established a competition rulebook, with 67 pages of tips and guidelines, including what’s allowed and not allowed when their items go before judges. Participants also build their own fires and keep them going.
“The chefs are just there to make sure we don’t get hurt or anything,” Memorial student Medellin said of her instructors. “They’re giving us pointers. But everything we do, we do by ourselves.”
Christopher Hancock, a Memorial team instructor, said even though the kids compete, the program is different from a competitive high school sports or academic event. “It’s a practical, hands-on life skill,” said Hancock, adding the students could apply their new skills to culinary careers, for example opening a food truck, or any number of related jobs.