Madison Ribberfest

Madison’s newest festival
to celebrate the city’s pork packing history

Two-day event to feature
pro/amateur barbecue cooking contests,
blues music and balloon races

By Pamela Decker
Contributing Writer

MADISON, Ind. (August 2002) – What does a professional barbecue cook off, two days of blues bands, a balloon race and concrete pigs on the streets of Madison have in common? They will all be a part of the first annual Madison Ribberfest, taking place on the banks of the Ohio River Aug. 16-17 in downtown Madison.
This event, which plans to celebrate the heritage of the area, along with the contributions of blues music, has included the participation and hard work of not only local residents but also from people all over the country. Jeff Garrett, event director for the new festival, has been planning the event for nearly a year and has high expectations for the weekend.
“The community will be exposed to some really fine barbecue, along with good, solid entertainment,” he says.

2002 Ribberfest Cover

Garrett explained that the idea for the festival was generated by tourism director Linda Lytle and Madison Mayor Al Huntington, who both wanted to organize a festival that recognizes the agricultural aspect of the community. Garrett soon joined the planning and became event director, whose job is to “put the festival together from the beginning, from top to bottom,” he said.
The main focus of the festival will be the Saturday night barbecue cook-off. The Kansas City BBQ Society, the largest organization of barbecue enthusiasts in the world, has sanctioned the event, and Indiana Gov. Frank O’Bannon has proclaimed the competition the official state contest. This means the winner of the professional division will earn a berth in the national cookoff, making the event attractive to contestants nationwide.
The contest will include four different cooking sections: chicken, pork shoulder, ribs and beef brisket. There will also be live blues music Friday night and all day Saturday, and two balloon races on Saturday, sponsored by RE/MAX of Indiana. With competitors coming from as far as Nashville, Tenn., to participate, the Madison Ribberfest is sizing up to be a big deal to big-time barbecue enthusiasts.
“This is a very serious barbecue competition,” Garrett said.
Although Garrett thinks barbecue competitions are big now, Ribberfest contestant and current U.S. champion Lee McWright says that they can only grow bigger. McWright, a 50-year-old Nashville, Tenn., resident, said in a July telephone interview that he has been a barbecue enthusiast all his life and a serious competitor since 1992. He has competed in more than 150 contests and won 15, capturing numerous other titles. He became aware of the Madison competition in January and met Garrett at another contest earlier this year.
McWright says he is excited to visit the unique town of Madison and even more excited to share the joy of the social aspects of the barbecue cookoff.
“I bet that the No. 1 amateur sport in the U.S.A. is grilling. Just look outside at your neighbors’ homes. Almost every one of them has a grill,” said McWright.
Also exciting for Madison is that McWright will be vending in addition to competing during the festival, so that everyone can come and sample his award-winning barbecue. McWright and his wife, Bobbie, often compete together in cook-offs and own a catering business in Nashville called Music City Catering.
In addition to great food and blues, Garrett said the festival will celebrate the not-so-distant past of Madison’s porkpacking days and its shining title of being the “porkopolis of the Midwest.”
“There is such a strong history of porkpacking in Madison in the 1800s, even more so than Cincinnati and Chicago,” says Garrett. He added that this historic industry has relevance for today, since it started so many other businesses in Madison that supported the pork houses. So not only did the porkpacking industry help the agricultural community flourish, the commercial side benefited greatly as well, says Garrett.
In addition to having a barbecue cook-off for the festival, the strange sight of decorated concrete pigs along the streets of Madison can also be attributed to historic zeal. Like wayward moose on the streets of Ontario, Canada, Madison had its share of wandering pigs during the height of its pork packing days. Garrett explained that when live pigs were being shipped to the pork houses to be processed, some inevitably escaped and roamed free, thus a stray pig became a common sight for Madisonians at the turn of the century.
“The wayward hogs of the 1800s on the street corners gave us the idea for “Pigmania,” the contest for decorating the concrete pigs,” Garrett said.
While barbecue enthusiasts from different states are gearing up for the cook-off, local residents are also fine tuning their skills at grilling as well as judging.
Sean and David Auxier of Hanover Ind., attended a Kansas City BBQ Society-sponsored judging school in Madison in early June to become certified judged. The brothers were among 25 students who attended the school. Many, including the Auxiers, will judge at the Madison Ribberfest.
At the five-hour course, students learned the three different aspects in judging: appearance, tenderness and taste. The Auxiers also explained that the judging is composed of 24 judges, or four teams of six, who are presented the meat in a box with only a number on it, so that the judges do not know who cooked it.
The Auxiers say they are excited about cooking and judging, and they hope to organize a competitive team in the near future. But David says he is even more excited to see the new festival bring music, barbecue and other unique entertainment to the community.
“This is a real asset for Madison,” he said. “I think the turnout will grow every year.”

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