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Backyard BBQ Blast

Amateur cooking event
offers chance for reunions

Bertsch among growing number of women in contest

(Aug. 12, 2016) – Madison, Ind., almost always finds a way to celebrate its past and draw visitors to the picturesque city on the Ohio Riverfront.
Take its history with pork, for example. In the 1800s, the bustling river town was known as the early pork capital of the Midwest. In fact, Madison was called the “greatest porkopolis in the world,” according to a 1920 article in the “Indiana History Magazine.”

Photo provided

Helen Bertsch (left) is pictured with her daughter, Samantha, at a previous Madison Ribberfest “Blast.”

It was only natural that when P.T. Barnum arranged for Jenny Lind, the internationally acclaimed Swedish opera singer, to tour America, Madison was one of the stops on her 18-city tour. The city needed to polish up a place big enough to hold all the visitors. So one of its many pork houses was scrubbed down, white-washed and turned into an opera house for the gala event on April 11, 1851.
Some 150 years after the “Swedish Nightingale” sang there, a few Madison promoters were inspired to start a new festival that drew upon the city’s heritage but offered contemporary fun.
The Madison Ribberfest was born, a two-day event filled with blues music, good family fun, a decorative pig contest, “piglet” activities for children, and lots of barbecued pork and other food, including ribs, beef brisket and game. All were to be cooked with original sauces and seasoned with rubs. The late Jeff Garrett, who founded the event in 2002, asked Steve Thomas, owner of the Thomas Family Winery, to help organize the amateur cooking portion of that first event.
“We rolled up our sleeves and did the best we could,” Thomas said. “We love to cook.” Thomas has directed the Madison Courier Backyard BBQ Blast for amateur grillers every year since. The event takes place on Friday night of Ribberfest along Vaughn Drive just east of the festival grounds at Madison Bicentennial Park. A pro cooking contest sanctioned and run by the Kansas City Barbeque Society also takes place that weekend on the west side of the festival grounds.

Photo courtesy of Jake Stuart

Amy Stuart (second adult from right) poses with her team, Siblings Only Barbecue, at a previous Backyard Blast.

Now entering its 15th year, this year’s Madison Ribberfest is scheduled for Friday and Saturday, Aug. 19-20. It is expected to draw nearly 11,000 people who go to enjoy music by nine blues performers. In addition to pro, amateur and youth cooking contests, there will be paddle wheeler rides on the river, a 5K run, bicycle rides, corn hole tournament and much more. 
Currently, Thomas and Jake Stuart coordinate the Madison Courier Backyard BBQ Blast.
Helen Bertsch is one of the amateur cooks who has competed every year since the start. A native of Madison, she now lives in Waterford, Mich. “I knew the Garretts and found out about it,” she said, referring to the first “Ribberfest” back in 2002. “I love Madison.
It is close to my heart.” Bertsch and other family members decided to compete. “It has become something of a family tradition. I enter every category, every year.”
Along the way, she has won several awards. “I placed first before in game and other meat, and second in chicken. Second in beef briskets. And I won the barbecue sauce award,” she said. Despite her awards, she admits, “I have been on a dry spell for a couple of years.”
Her secret? “I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” she said. “I love to cook, grill and smoke,” she said. Ribberfest also offers her a “chance to see old friends.” Although some of the amateur barbecue entrants move up to the pro level to compete on the Kansas City Barbeque Society circuit, Bertsch said she prefers to stay at the amateur level. “For me, it’s more casual, and there is less pressure,” a break, perhaps from her high-pressure job as an X-ray technician. Mainly, she likes to chance to visit her hometown, see old friends, engage in “friendly competition” and “hang out on the river” with family and friends. 
Two daughters, Samantha and Sydney Bertsch, and her sister, Cathy Lyons, will cook with her this year on their team, “Pig ’n Boots.” Along with pork, beef brisket, ribs and chicken, they are making sauce and a rub. “This year I am doing venison, a Michigan deer from a friend who went hunting last year,” Bertsch said.
“Pig ’n Boots” is one all-female team on the amateur side. A growing number of women compete in the event, which gradually is changing, according to Bertsch. “There are quite a few women,” she said, “but it still is predominantly male.”
A few years ago, Amy Stuart decided to start her own team. Her husband, Jake, participated in the Backyard Blast. It was hot on the riverfront. When their children still were babies, she didn’t want to take them to the event. Before too many years passed, however, she changed her mind and decided to do something. She didn’t know what.
Already, her husband’s team was well regulated. “They had a plan, and there was nothing for me to do.” On the Saturday night before the next Ribberfest was to start, Amy decided, “Well, I’ll just start my own barbecue team.” With a chuckle, she added that she didn’t barbecue, grill, smoke or do anything involved with the process. While she was a novice, she knew her brothers were not. On Sunday, she met with her sisters and brothers. They decided to form a team, “Siblings Only Barbecue.” On Monday, they signed up for the amateur competition, placed an order for T-shirts for the team, and contacted a cousin to obtain a pig. Everything fell in line.
The Siblings Only Barbecue team includes Teresa Bennett, Susie Schafer, Tony Schafer, Jenny Ransom, Chris Schafer, Sara Schafer and Amy Stuart. Their parents are John and Sharon Schafer of Madison. All the siblings live in Madison, except for Chris, who lives in Hanover, and Susie, in Indianapolis.
“We usually ending up filling all the categories,” Amy said. This year, she will be cooking beef brisket.

Although the Siblings team has not yet won any awards, Amy is not worried, saying, “We are just laid back.”

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