North Wildwood's first New Jersey State Barbecue Championship, in 1999, drew about a dozen cooking teams to a parking lot in the Anglesea section of town.
But the contest has expanded just a bit since then - to the point that the 13th annual version is scheduled to spread out over more than six blocks of North Wildwood and have 70 teams showing off their skills with chicken, pork, ribs and brisket.
"And it has taken over many more parking lots than just that original one," says Eric Shenkus, 39, the chairman of the championship, which shares its annual run - Friday through Sunday this year - with the Anglesea Blues Festival.
Unfortunately, it's too late for local backyard-barbecue lovers to join the 2011 competition. The event is maxed out at those 70 teams for a simple reason - space, Shenkus says. They just can't fit any more.
But there's plenty of room for eaters and fans: An official survey estimates the crowd at 71,000 people over three days, the chairman adds.
And events such as this one have a way of hooking people in. Take Mike Johnson, 47, of Cape May Court House, who was a North Wildwood cop in 1999 when he was assigned to work at the festival. By the next year, Johnson was taking a competition-judging class from the Kansas City Barbeque Society, or the KCBS - or "the NFL of barbecue," in Shenkus' words.
By his third year of being around the New Jersey State Championship - a fundraiser for the Anglesea Volunteer Fire Company - Johnson had put together his own team, Anglesea Barbecue. It's just one of several local teams in the competition, and it has scored well over the years.
Johnson retired from the hometown police in May, but several of his team members are still officers in North Wildwood, including Cliff Massie and Rich Schmidt. That makes Anglesea Barbecue one of several local teams with a major police presence - the Cooking Commados lean heavily to State Police members, Shenkus says.
But other teams are made up of architects and college buddies and the list goes on - and the cooks show up from as far away as the Carolinas and New England.
If anyone out there is interested in making the leap from backyard barbecuer to competitor, Johnson has a little advice: First, go to North Wildwood this weekend and see what the contest is all about. Second, take a class in either barbecue judging or barbecue cooking - or both. They're often offered at the New Jersey State Barbecue Championship, although not this year, Shenkus says.
But the KCBS is one of the exhibitors this weekend, and its website - www.kcbs.us - has lists of classes around the country. It also has a list of competitions on The Great American BBQ Tour.
Contact Martin DeAngelis:
The New Jersey State
Barbecue Championship and Anglesea Blues Festival
Friday through Sunday along Olde New Jersey Avenue in the Anglesea Section of North Wildwood. Free. Food, beverages and crafts for sale from vendors. Hours: 4 to 11 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to