NEWPORT Each year on the last weekend in September, Newport holds its annual Depot Days, a free festival that celebrates the musical heritage of the area. A big part of the weekend is Jackson County’s Best Backyard Barbecue Contest.
An atmosphere of fun, friendly competition and mutual respect for the love of smoky outdoor delicacies surround the rows of carefully crafted smokers and grills lining Front Street, serenaded by the guitar riffs of early rock ’n’ roll played just a couple of blocks down on the main stage.
More likely than not, at least one of the barbecue competitors will be named Gilmore. For the 15 years that the festival has been in existence, Ricky Gilmore of Swifton has competed in the Backyard Barbecue competition. When asked how many times his ribs or pork butts have placed “in the money,” Gilmore twisted his brow in thought.
“Well,” he said, “I believe we have won in one division, butts or ribs, every time.”
His 17-year-old daughter, Caitlin, no stranger to the grill herself, enthusiastically agreed: “Sometimes both.”
In recent years, Caitlin has competed with her sister Cali, 21, on a team called Just Us Girls, and also alone as Just Me.
Except for Ricky’s toddler years in nearby Alicia, he has spent all his life in Swifton, raising his family in the close-knit community in northern Jackson County. He started grilling as a social thing, mostly men in the backyard “burning” a steak on a weekend afternoon, but as his skill level accelerated and his daughters appeared, he began looking at grilling as more of a way to spend time with his family.
Both his girls have been “standing by Daddy” at the grill as long as they can remember. Caitlin recalled one visit to a local store.
“We came up to Wilson’s [store], and the butcher asked, “What are you doing today, Cailtlin?’” she said.
Ricky proudly finished the story about his then-preschooler: “She said, ‘We are cooking butts. But they are chicken butts. I don’t think they are people butts.”
Apparently, any barbecue confusion has long since been cleared. Two years ago, a scheduling conflict prevented Ricky from participating in the annual contest, so Caitlin entered alone, and the plucky 15-year-old won the pork butt prize.
“I really like cooking anything. I like barbecuing, baking sweets or making something spicy in the kitchen,” she said.
A senior at Tuckerman High School in Jackson County, Caitlin said of her future, “Right now I am really open-minded, but I have thought about a career in the food industry. I love it.”
The Gilmores have taken their winning show on the road to compete as well. They have won or placed in the Esperanza Bonanza festival in Marion that can have as many as 80 teams, and even at the granddaddy of contests, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest at Memphis in May on the banks of the Mississippi River.
“That is really something,” Ricky said of the Memphis contest, which boasts more 250 teams and an estimated 100,000 attendees. “We placed 17th in the amateur division, Patio Porkers. But that festival is really geared for the pros, for people that have spent thousands on grills, uniforms, decorations, fancy trailers. I am more there for a good time with my family, but it is really something to see.”
The Gilmores are humble about their success but have very specific ideas about how to achieve that success. Ricky has several cookers and regularly uses one that he built that employs indirect heating, and he can confidently regulate the temperature.
“Lighter fluid has never touched our grills,” Caitlin said.
Ricky nodded his head vigorously in agreement: “You can taste it in the food. Also, we use charcoal. A lot of people say to use straight hickory, but I think it makes the meat taste like you are chewing on an old car tire.”
The Gilmores make their own rubs with a little variation between the one for the butts and the ribs — the ribs a little sweeter, the butts saltier. Caitlin has a few of her own tips, different than her mentor.
“He likes dry ribs; I like really moist. I spray mine with apple or pineapple juice before the rub goes on.”
Rob Ratton, contest committee chairman and barbecue enthusiast himself, said of Ricky, “We use a blind judging format and rotate judges every year. It is amazing how often his finished product is the favorite for so many different people. He really has his technique down pat.”
The Gilmores cook other things on the grill as well, but actual recipes are hard to come by.
“We slice fresh jalapenos longways, take out the seeds and fill with a mixture of country sausage, cream cheese and mozzarella cheese, throw those on the grill, and well, they are pretty tasty,” he said in his unassuming friendly way.
Asked about his secret for winning, Ricky first said, “Luck,” then continued, “A lot of people take it serious; they want to win. We go down to have a good time. Depot Days is special to us. It’s our local gig. We enjoy going down to Front Street, seeing other people, looking at the way they do things [on the grill]. There are always good people that we can socialize with, spend time with family and friends, and if you win, well, that’s just extra.”
Depot Days and the Jackson County Best Backyard Barbecue Contest will take place Saturday on Front Street in downtown Newport. More information and barbecue-contest registration is available at www.depotdays.org or by calling (870) 523-3618.