NORTH WILDWOOD — About 14 years ago a group of firemen were sitting around discussing ways to raise money to support the Anglesea Volunteer Fire Company, when one of them — a barbecue enthusiast — suggested a barbecue festival.

The fire company previously attempted hosting a seafood festival that surprisingly had less than stellar results. But barbecue offered something different for the Jersey Shore and could attract an equally unique following.

“It’s all-American food,” said Paul DiFilippo, the event’s co-chair. “It’s right up there with Grandma’s apple pie.”

And when a blues music festival was added to the event a couple years later, the festival took off.

“There’s the wonderful smell of the food cooking, the great blues music playing all weekend and, by the way, the food is out of this world,” DiFilippo said. “It’s a great event for the entire family.”

DiFilippo said more than 75,000 people are expect to attend this year’s three-day New Jersey State Barbecue Championship and Anglesea Blues Festival, which will conclude today with the Kansas City Barbeque Society judging 68 entrees in four categories: pork, chicken, ribs and brisket.

And an overcast, occasionally rainy Saturday kept people at the event.

“This is the perfect weather for us,” DiFilippo said looking out at a crowd of thousands of people. “Because none of these people are at the beach.”

In addition to a trophy and prize money, the grand champion of the event will be eligible to compete in the invitation-only world championship in Kansas City, Mo., called the American Royal.

Philadelphia restaurant owner Jack McDavid, the proprietor of Jack’s Firehouse, has traveled throughout the country showcasing his barbecue mastery. He is a past champion of the New Jersey event, as well as contests in six other states.

The denim-overall wearing chef has been featured on the Food Network’s “Grillin’ and Chillin’“ with Bobby Flay and received Food & Wine magazine’s Best Chefs in America award.

But McDavid, 56, called the barbecue championship in North Wildwood “one of the best in the country.”

“So many nice people come here, there’s great music playing always and there are some mighty fine-looking people in New Jersey, so that’s always nice. They also have plenty of beer flowing, even though I can’t have any because they’ve got me working,” McDavid said from behind a large wood-burning grill. “Tomorrow I’m competing, but today I’m cooking for the people.”

Even though there was a line stretching from his booth dubbed Jack’s Down Home Barbecue, McDavid — like many of the other chefs — gladly took time to chat and joke with satisfied customers.

And it was in these conversations the barbecue purist in McDavid shone through.

“How can people cook with gas and still can it barbecue?” he asked. “I cook with wood and love.”

McDavid’s booth was the third stop for Egg Harbor Township residents Karl and Robin Coleman — but not their last.

“We’re making our way to as many vendors as we can. And so far it’s all very good,” said Karl Coleman, 51, while chewing on some ribs.

“We came here for the music and the barbecue, and it’s a nice free event,” said Robin Coleman, 51. “We have been to a couple barbecue events in Philadelphia, but this is our first time coming here — and we’ll definitely be back.”

C.J. and Cindy Johnson traveled from Washington, D.C., just for the festival.

“We love barbecue and we love blues, so we took the ferry over from Delaware,” said C.J. Johnson, 55. “We go to the barbecue festival in Washington every year, and this one is close. Just not as many free samples.”

Still, when asked if the barbecue was worth the trip, Cindy Johnson’s response — a mouth full of food and a hardy thumb’s up — said it all.

More importantly, the event has accomplished the goal that the room full of firemen had hoped for, helping to fund the purchasing of equipment and apparatus for the fire company.

“We have raised more than $2 million in the 14 years we’ve been doing this,” said DiFilippo, adding that part of that money has helped fund its charitable endeavors, including the tens of thousands of scholarship dollars it has awarded to local youths.

“We can’t get any bigger, there’s no where else to put people. So we keeping asking ourselves if we can make it any better,” he said. “But you know what? We can’t. It’s already about as good as it can get, which is why people keep coming back.”

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