COLUMBIA — A potent dark smoke hovered about nose height around the parking lot at the Boone County Fair on Friday.
People with purple wristbands and two voting ballots went from booth to booth taste-testing 17 competitors' barbecue chicken wings at the first People's Choice chicken wing competition, part of the 17th annual Boone's Lick Trail BBQ Contest.
“There’s some on my face, isn’t there?” Sara Neitzert asked her friend after taking a bite out of a darkly-coated barbecue chicken wing.
For the first time at the fair, barbecue lovers were able to choose the winners of the contest Friday night.
It wasn’t difficult to find the competitors; most had loud music, loud signs and the most important indicator, the smell of barbecue.
“Smelling the smoke is almost worth the price of admission,” said Richard Wieman, a Columbia resident who tasted barbecue with his wife, Sheila. “I’m a barbecue fanatic. I just love it.”
This year, the Boone County Fair Board worked together with the Health Department to offer barbecue to the public. About 40 competitors signed up for the Saturday competition, and 17 decided to contribute to the People’s Choice Award evening.
“I hope it goes well. I think it could be a really good thing for the community and the contest,” said Jamey Johnson, a Brown Station resident and member of Natural Born Grillers and Beta Beta Que. “The best part of the competition is all of the fellowship among the teams. We have a close-knit group of people … but I enjoy the cooking most of all. We’re astronomically serious. It’s a sport, not a hobby.”
For $10, people purchased a purple wristband that allowed access to booths situated around the parking lot. At the end of the tasting, the public chose two favorites and put a voting ballot in a box at their favorite competitor’s stand.
“In the past, a lot of people came out to the competitions and wanted to taste-test,” competition coordinator Amiee Olmstead said. “Hopefully the public will enjoy it as much as the competitors do.”
Lysa Holmes planned her chicken-wing-eating evening strategically. Instead of just going on tasting and intuition, she wrote all the booth numbers and her initial reactions to their chicken wings on a paper plate. After all 17 booths were tasted, she knew which booth was her favorite, but the winner was hard to read because of the dark red barbecue stains on the plate.
“Napkins are critical,” Holmes said. “I almost docked points for a booth because they didn’t have any.”
Participants slowly made their way through the 17 competitors' booths. Many mingled with old friends, and many were offered a beer to sweeten the deal.
“I’m so full,” Holmes said. “I’ve just stopped here because they offered me a water and a cooler to sit on.”
The barbecue smoke lifted just a bit, but the laughter and full bellies did not. Fifty pounds of chicken wings later, most of the new barbecue connoisseurs were satisfied.
“We cook to please … no, really we just cook to cook,” Bill Martin said.
After all the wings are tasted, and all the votes tallies up, a winner will be announced Saturday afternoon.
Many competitors opted out of the People’s Choice Award and instead decided to focus their attention on Saturday's competition, which began at noon.