Originally created 09/15/03

Barbecue lovers are in hog haven at the Big Pig Jig



VIENNA, Ga. -- This farming town of 3,000 lacks the cultural attractions of its famous Austrian namesake.

Instead of Strauss waltzes, five-star hotels or a 1,500-room palace dating back to the Middle Ages, Georgia's Vienna - pronounced Vi'anna - offers country music on the radio, a bed at the Knight's Inn, the town's only motel, and a cluster of what some might call shacks that make up BBQ City, USA.

But Stan Grambrell, Vienna's retired city manager, stops short of calling them shacks, preferring to describe them as a "cluster of unique structures."

For two days in October, BBQ City fills with up to 25,000 people attracted to Vienna's Big Pig Jig, one of the nation's premier barbecue cooking competitions.

"We are the largest sanctioned barbecue contest in the country - actually the world," said Rhonda Lamb-Heath, project coordinator for the Jig, which is also the Georgia state barbecue championship.

The rest of the year, BBQ City is a ghost town. Motorists whizzing along Interstate 75 nearby might think they just passed a frontier fort on a movie set or a tourist attraction.

But for barbecue competitors and barbecue lovers, it's a hog heaven during the Big Pig Jig.

The competitors take barbecue way beyond the charred creations of amateurs on backyard grills.

Many inject the meat with secret sauces and they rub it with mysterious spices while it slowly roasts in sophisticated cookers that maintain precise temperatures and moisture levels.

Some competitors have built permanent buildings at BBQ City, where they can cook and serve their barbecue in a style they're comfortable with.

"Some of the teams have a considerable amount invested," said Gambrell, a founder of the Big Pig Jig.

The nation's potentates of pork will gather at Vienna once again Oct. 23-25 for the 22nd Annual Big Pig Jig.

Among them will be Larry Haynie, an Atlanta businessman, who is the chief cook of the eight-member L & L Cooking Crew, which has won four grand championships, including last year's title.

"It takes a really good product and a lot of luck," said Haynie, whose team competes in about eight championships a year, including the World Championship in Memphis, known as the "Superbowl of Swine."

At the Jig, barbecue lovers have to exercise lots of self-control amid the alluring smells of smoke and cooking pork.

They can purchase barbecue from vendors at the festival, but the only opportunity they get to sample the competitors' pork is on the first day of cooking.

For $1, they get a blissful three-hours of tasting as judges in the "People's Choice" competition, featuring the creations of some, but not all, contestants.

Many of the competitors prefer to focus on the more prestigious prizes. They can enter in one or all of three categories: whole hog, shoulders and ribs.

There are also ancillary categories such as barbecue sauce, barbecue chicken and Brunswick stew, a spicy Southern concoction that can include chicken, pork or small game with corn, tomatoes, lima beans, okra, onions and potatoes.

The 122 teams last year cooked nearly 300 entries.

It takes 300 to 400 judges, most of them trained and sanctioned by Memphis in May, which sponsors the World Championship, to evaluate all the pork cooked at the Jig.

"We have judges from New York City, New Jersey, Miami - everywhere," Lamb-Heath said. "Everybody loves barbecue."

Teams are judged on the appearance of their food, its tenderness and flavor and their presentation of the food.

The Jig, sponsored by the Dooly County Chamber of Commerce, awarded more than $12,000 in prize money last year, plus scores of trophies.

Gambrell said the contest started in 1982 when he and a few friends made $50 bets on who could cook the best pork. They decided the barbecue competition would be good for the town and combined it with an existing festival.

Since then, barbecue competition has gained national and international appeal, with nearly every state hosting championships.

Myron Mixon, who runs Jack's Old South Bar-B-Que, one of Vienna's two barbecue restaurants, competes in 30 to 40 contests around the country each year and has won more than 800 trophies, including two grand prizes at the Big Pig Jig.

"There's only two kinds of barbecue ... good or bad," he said. "You've got some of the best at the Big Pig Jig."

His 20-foot cooker resembles an old black steam locomotive. It's really three cookers on one trailer, where he roasts whole hogs, shoulders and ribs over peach-wood fires.

"I enjoy trying to one-up myself, trying to make my barbecue product one step better than it was last time," he said. "But once you have a successful combination, you try not to change it too much."

If You Go... FESTIVAL INFORMATION: BBQ City, USA, is located on Pig Jig Boulevard, in Vienna. The Big Pig Jig opens 5 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 23 and is open all day on Oct. 24 and 25. Admission is free on Thursday, but it's $8 for 12 and older and $5 for senior citizens on Friday. On Saturday, admission is $5 for 12 and older and senior citizens. GETTING THERE: From Interstate 75, take Exit 109 and turn west onto Georgia 215. Take a right on Pig Jig Boulevard. AROUND TOWN: For accommodations and restaurants, contact the Dooly County Chamber of Commerce, at 229-268-8275. http://www.doolychamber.com/

On the Net:

Big Pig Jig: http://www.bigpigjig.com/

Memphis in May: http://www.memphisinmay.org/frames.html