The Hammond BBQ Challenge has everything I love in life. It’s a BBQ competition in the middle of Bayou Country in Louisiana, U.S.A. Walking through the crowds, there is the melodic mingling of Southern and Creole accents as people share BBQ stories and swap life lessons. There’s the blended aromas of smoked meats and Cajun seafood. And there are a lot of big names there. A lot. But why are they here, in this tiny town, and what makes this the biggest KCBS competition in Louisiana for 18 years running? I had to find out for myself!
Hammond BBQ Challenge: Location
While staying in the French Quarter in the New Orleans, Hammond is about an hour’s drive North. Getting there is a traveller’s dream in and of itself. Lake Pontchartrain is immediately north of New Orleans, and the only way across is the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. The parallel bridges cross the brackish waters. At almost 40km long, it is the longest bridge over water in the world. Unfortunately there are no stopping zones to take the obligatory tourist-selfie, so make sure you have a co-pilot with you!
Hammond itself is a classic, small American town. The main street is divided straight down the middle by a still-working rail line connecting the Gulf of Mexico all the way through to Canada. The shop fronts remind me of a turn of the century cowboy movie set. Lining the streets are an eclectic collection of restaurants, diners, and Mom and Pop General Stores as well as various bars with icy cold beers. In a classical small American town where football and tailgating are king, a BBQ competition is perfect.
Hammond BBQ Challenge: Purpose
The sole purpose of the Hammond BBQ Challenge is to help out the local community. All states in America have countries except Louisiana: Louisiana has Parishes. One of the ways these parishes raise money is by holding festivals and when this BBQ contest kicked off, there were no festivals in Hammond Parish. There are many ways that it benefits the community. One of the ways that it benefits the community is by involving the two local high schools.
The two schools have culinary programs, and both have vendor spots at the Festival, earning money for their respective departments. Another way is by direct fund-raising for local charities. They rotate charities according to their needs and have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. Finally, the local first responders are heavily involved with the Chicken Little competition: a kid’s BBQ challenge. Local Firefighters do a fire safety presentation and then light their pits for them. Local Police Officers then provide escorts to the turn-in tents, helping the kids safely navigate the crowds. Every aspect of this BBQ competition has been designed to strengthen the local community.
Hammond BBQ Challenge: Why you MUST go
If you’re planning a trip through Louisiana, the Hammond BBQ Challenge is a must-d0. Firstly, the competition is on the first weekend of March, which is the start of Spring. The weather is typically warm and sunny without that humidity that a Louisianan Summer is known for. This is very attractive to many of the competitors who at that time will be still under a couple of feet of snow in their home towns. And of course, there’s the food. My God, the food. There’s classic BBQ for the traditionalists and then there’s Louisianan style BBQ: BBQ with Creole and Cajun influences. And of course there’s Lousianan cuisine: seafood like prawns (shrimp) and crawfish, gumbo, boudin and jambalaya. Next is the atmosphere: this competition is like none I’ve ever been to before. It has the feel of a small town fete, ut the buzz of a much larger festival. Both sides of the street are sealed off for four blocks and filled with BBQ teams, vendors and many other various food and craft stalls. There’s an air of excitement and commeraderie that’s infectious.
Next, there’s three different levels of competition happening at the same time and it’s something else to behold. There’s the aforementioned Chicken Little competitions for the kids. There’s also an amateur competition called ‘Backyard Boogie’. This is comprised of local teams who participate in a ‘Tip to Taste’ competition. Members of the public tip the teams to taste their food. All monies are donated to the competition fund and a prize is awarded for who can raise the most.
Finally, this competition draws out some of the biggest names in the competition BBQ game. At the festival I attended, I met some BBQ superstars such as Johnny ‘The Rib King’ Trigg, Darren Warth from Iowa Smokey D’s, Mike Wozniak from QUAU, and Adam Gatreau from Cajun Blaze. All of these legendary Pitmasters are very approachable and very generous to people who want to say hi and take a selfie.
Hammond BBQ Challenge: Conclusion
By now, I’d imagine you’ve already got your tickets booked and a competition calendar for you to map your own BBQ roadtrip on. If it’s not there yet, the Hammond BBQ Challenge deserves to be on that list. If you like warm weather, blue skies, Cajun food, cold beers and of course delicious smokey BBQ, then this event is for you.
Trust me, you won’t regret it!
Want to know more about the Hammond BBQ Challenge? Check out my interview with event founder Eric Phares. This interview was originally part of Season Three of the SHC Podcast – U.S. Road Trip Part 1. Hit any of the links below to catch the full episode, for free!
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