- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2005

SPARKS, Nev. — The sweet, smoky haze wafting across Interstate 80 on Labor Day weekend comes from a string of two dozen barbecue stands cooking up their creations on the edge of the Sierra Nevada.

The secret recipes for the dry rubs and sauces arrive from all over — Texas, Chicago, Oregon, Memphis and Arkansas — with some of the best grill masters in the world, who gather at the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off.

A record 148,000 pounds of St. Louis-style pork ribs were devoured last year by about 300,000 visitors, who washed them down with fresh-squeezed lemonade and regional ales while listening to free music on five stages in Sparks, Reno’s smaller next-door neighbor.

From Sept. 1 through 5, six city blocks again will be closed to traffic, and the cookers — don’t call them chefs — will stoke their red-hot smokers with hickory, alder and cherry wood at the 17th annual festival at Victorian Square.

This year’s entertainment includes 38 Special, Paul Thorn and Collin Raye. There will be 125 arts-and-crafts booths, a children’s carnival play area and a large interactive fountain in front of a theater plaza, where young and old alike cool off between finger lickings.

Make no mistake, the stars are the ribs, which technically are called “bones.” As in the $5 sampler, with three bones. Or the half rack (typically eight bones) for $10 or the full rack (typically 16 bones) for $18.

The best advice for newcomers? Bring a crowd.

The more people, the cheaper it is to sample a variety of cooking styles and regional flavors. A group of four can buy a full rack each at $18 and divide them, whereas one person would have to buy four three-bone samplers to get the same tastes.

Another strategy is to use geography as a guide, alternating between the Southerners, who tend to use thinner, vinegar-based sauces, and the Northerners, who stick to thicker, sweeter sauces.

This year’s lineup includes Texas Outlaw Barbeque from Elizabethtown, Ky., Bone Daddy’s from Midland, Mich., a favorite among the sweet tooths, and Razorback Cookers of Blytheville, Ark., strictly Memphis-style.

The owners of North Main Bar B Q in Euless, Texas, who compete as the Sweet Meat Cooking Team and sport a large grill shaped like an armadillo, haven’t missed the event since winning the inaugural title in 1989.

Lines get long at night, so it’s best to visit past champions and other favorites during the afternoon and spend evenings sampling from some of the newer, undiscovered stands.

The hardest part can be persuading members of your crew to try something new once they’ve gotten hooked on a favorite.

Most competitors sell bottles of their own barbecue sauce, and some hawk souvenirs, such as T-shirts emblazoned with “PETA.” Not to be confused with ads for the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, these shirts are worn by members of “People for the Eating of Tasty Animals.”

The 2005 lineup of 24 cookers is already set. Sponsors say it’s possible someone will cancel, but they recommend that rookie rib cookers visit the event once before entering.

“This is not an event for the meek and recreational rib cooker — this is hard work,” the Nugget’s Web site warns. “You wake up early, go to bed late and wake up again the next day ready to serve your customers with a great attitude and a smile on your face.”

Not to mention barbecue sauce from ear to ear.

A final tip: Don’t forget some moist towelettes or a wet washcloth in a plastic bag. Yes, paper napkins are provided. No, they don’t do much good.

• • •

Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off: Sept. 1 through 5, Victorian Square, Sparks, Nev.; visit www.nuggetribcookoff.com or call 800/648-1177. For help in planning a trip to Sparks, visit www.travelnevada.com or call 800/638-2328.

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