Darrel Stubbs, a long-time participant in the All American Cookoff at the Gila County Fair, explains the first order of business on competition day: “one guy smoking gets out there in the morning and fixes everyone breakfast and gets the smokers going.” Even for folks like Stubbs who have been competing for many years and have won or placed in the past, the competition is all about community and cameraderie.
The cookoff has a long history in Gila County. Before it was part of the fair it was held in the parking lot of Cobre Valley Motors by the Gila County Cattle Growers Association. It was previously the “beef cookoff,” but now there’s a place for pork and poultry at the table too. Four years ago, Tanner Hunsaker joined John and Nan O’Donnell in organizing the event.
According to Hunsaker, it is “nothing like most cookoffs.” He explains that in many cookoffs, contestants receive a number, it gets attached to their dish, and their dish disappears to an unknown location to be evaluated by unknown judges. At the All American Cookoff, contestants meet the judges face-to-face. The judges can question their preparation techniques and the contestant gets to present for the judging. Judges change year to year, but are often folks who have competed for many years, like A.J. Gore.
This was Gore’s second year as a judge. Gore has competed five times and is a past Grand Champion. “It’s nice to be a judge, so you can relax and enjoy,” says Gore. He describes the competition as much more personal than national BBQ competitions where food is presented in a styrofoam box with a bottle of water. Of course, this also means the judging isn’t blind. Judges look for taste, originality, and presentation. Stubbs says that he doesn’t get nervous during the competition, but when it gets down to the wire, he starts asking himself things like, “Is my plate clean?” and “Does the presentation look proper?”
When he competes, Gore cooks in his large, DIY, industrial smoker. He hand-built the smoker using air compressors and exhaust pipes, taking inspiration from his career working with cars. “All brand new,” he’s sure to note. He remembers loading up the smoker, which can feed 100 people, and giving the food away as samples. “It’s a non-profit for me,” says Gore “a thing to contribute back to the community.”
There is no entry fee for the competition. This year, judging began at 6:30 p.m. and many contests arrived as much as twelve hours earlier to begin cooking. Meat can arrive marinated, but must be cooked on-site. Participants sometimes work with a sponsor to help cover the cost of their ingredients. Hunsaker calls sponsorship “an excellent opportunity for an individual or business.” He also notes that the event draws plenty of competitors from outside of Gila County as well, including some professionals.”
Mark Sandoval, who grew up in Globe, but owns Gibson’s Smokehouse, based in Phoenix, has competed for three years. Sandoval’s family lives in Globe and shortly after he started his catering company, someone mentioned the competition to him. “I decided to enter thinking I could kind of test my skills and see how it went.” His first year competing, he took second across the board. Sandoval describes his style as “gourmet BBQ.” He slow smokes his brisket for 12 hours with hickory wood and plates it in a gourmet style
For Sandoval, the cookoff is a family affair. His relatives in Globe joins him to cook at the competition. He looks forward to cooking with his father every year—he calls it their “father son time’’—and his cousin, who is like a brother.
Although there’s typically a modest cash prize for the winner, many participants said that they ended up donating their winnings back to 4-H and FFA. “We’re all community minded,” says Stubbs. “The big deal is camaraderie amongst the people,” he adds.
The prize that’s really enticing isn’t necessarily the money. As Hunsaker explains, “the bragging rights are always great too.” The winner receives a traveling trophy that Hunsaker says “some folks don’t like to turn over. They don’t want to let loose of it.”
Asked to think back on particularly memorable dishes that have come out of the cookoff over the years, Hunsaker says “They all stand out. I remember most of them.”
“There have been a lot of really great ribeyes, I know that,” he says with a laugh. Hunsaker explains that the food served at the competition is, “all very unique, generally original recipes, tailored for the event.” Stubbs, for example, once created a riff on the famous White Castle hamburger and Gore used a slightly adapted version of his mother’s recipe for cheeseburgers.
“It’s a lot of work, a lot of pressure, but it’s a good time,” says Gore.
Autumn Giles is a freelance writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Edible Baja Arizona, Modern Farmer, Punch, Serious Eats, and elsewhere. Her first book, Beyond Canning was published in February 2016.