As the pageant winds down, I wander the grounds taking in the sights. In front of one barbecue booth there's a huge wooden sign with "Confederated Cookers" carved across the Rebel flag. Right around the corner I stumble upon the Skinner Lane Gang busily taking barbecue off the smoker. I stand there staring at them in awe. They are the first all-black barbecue cook-off team I've ever seen. One of them invites me to come in and sit down.
This isn't the Skinner Lane Gang's first big rodeo. They won the overall championship trophy here in 1994. And they hope to win it again this time, they tell me. First, I sample a healthy pile of their brisket and a few excellent ribs. Then I start asking questions.
"How many black teams are entered this year?" I want to know.
"I think there's two or three," says team leader Louis Archendaux. There are 430 teams entered in this year's contest, according to organizers; they have no record of how many are black.
The main reason blacks don't enter barbecue cook-offs is money, says Archendaux, who runs his own chemical company in Sugar Land. "You've got to know somebody. We don't have any sponsors -- except for friends and relatives who help us out with a few bucks here and there." Although the entry fee is only $650, a mandatory million-dollar liability insurance policy, tent and table rentals, ice, and food and beverage expenses run up the tab. "We have one of the littlest booths out here. We are barely getting by with $5,000 or $6,000," Archendaux tells me.
The team's booth is furnished with a few picnic tables and a small bar. There are about a dozen invited guests of various races sitting around eating barbecue and drinking beer.
"How do you decide who to invite in?" I ask.
"We set up folding chairs outside here and watch for hungry people who don't have wristbands," chuckles a team member. "You can tell by the look on their face that they have no idea what's going on. So we bring them in and give them some barbecue."
Anyone foolish enough to come to the Houston rodeo barbecue cook-off without a corporate wristband gets a pathetic chopped barbecue sandwich, a scoop of industrial cole slaw and some tasteless beans served on a Styrofoam plate at the public tent. A $6 general admission ticket also allows them to walk around and peek into the invitation-only tents. Sponsors use these to entertain and raise money for worthy causes -- and that's where the competition-quality barbecue, live bands and open bars are.
For barbecue buffs who lack corporate connections, the Skinner Lane Gang booth is a tiny outpost of real-world charity. I take a second helping of brisket, which is very tender and cut into irregular chunks. I'm curious about how it will fare in the judging. Archendaux tells me the brisket they will enter in the contest is sliced completely differently.
"Do you change your regular cooking style for the competition?" I ask.
"You have to," says Archendaux. "If you get it really tender, you can't slice it perfectly. And appearance is very important to the judges."
"Are any of the judges black?" I wonder.
"Probably not," he says. A visit to the judging booth confirms Archendaux's suspicions: There may be a black judge somewhere, but the 60 or 70 I can see are all white.
Although many barbecue cook-off organizers would like to see more black teams participate, African-Americans are discouraged by the white-dominated judging standards and the frat boy atmosphere -- and then there are the Confederate flags.
"Two years ago, when that flap was going on over in South Carolina, barbecue teams started flying Confederate flags here in Houston," says Archendaux. "Somebody complained and the livestock show folks told the teams to take down the flags." Confederate flags are still banned at the Houston rodeo cook-off.
"Flags don't bother me," says Archendaux. The Skinner Lane Gang has been breaking the color barrier at Texas barbecue cook-offs for going on 20 years now. "We were the first black team at the Fort Bend County Cook-off in 1984," Archendaux says. "They had Confederate flags flying all over the place."