This week we have a guest post from great friend of the blog Sean Ludwig of The Smoke Sheet and NYC BBQ. Sean recently attended the BBQ Fest on the Neuse in downtown Kinston. I have yet to make it to Kinston for the event but after reading Sean’s recap, I have added it to my ever-expanding list of barbecue joints, contests, and festivals for the eastern part of the state.
This article has been reprinted from The Smoke Sheet with Sean’s permission and a minor edit to reflect when the festival took place. Both The Smoke Sheet and NYC BBQ newsletters are invaluable resources for the barbecue-obsessed and if you aren’t already subscribed, I can’t recommend it enough.
On the first weekend in May, an estimated 100,000 attendees showed up for the BBQ Fest on the Neuse in Kinston, North Carolina. The annual BBQ Fest — held alongside the Neuse River — featured food trucks, vendors, live music, rides, family fun activities, and more on Friday night and Saturday day.
But the real star of the show for die-hard barbecue fans was the 42nd Wil King Hog Happenin’ BBQ competition — the world’s largest whole hog cookoff. The competition, sanctioned by the North Carolina Pork Council, featured 40 Professional and 47 Backyard teams that cooked hogs on Friday night into Saturday morning. This whole hog competition is one of the top competitions held annually in North Carolina, alongside events like the Newport Pig Cookin Contest.
“This is the largest whole hog competition in the country,” Chris Fineran of the highly decorated Beach Boys BBQ team said. “And at the Newport competition, they have 68 cooks, and every one of them has to compete in the same Professional category. Here it is broken into two different groups. … But everybody shows up. There are probably six to eight prior Pork Council champions competing.”
Competitors select their hogs using a lottery system on Friday starting at 8 p.m. and then go to work cleaning and prepping them. No special seasonings can be used, only salt. Teams cook for roughly 10 hours before judges begin tasting and testing hogs at 8 a.m. Just four judges were in charge of evaluating the 40 Professional team hogs, and four judges scored the 47 Backyard teams.
Almost all of the hogs and hog parts that are cooked during the cookoff end up being chopped up and served for BBQ sandwiches during the main event. The crew from Kings BBQ Restaurant in Kinston, North Carolina, is in charge of selecting what meat and parts go into the pork and chopping it up in style. The BBQ sandwiches and “bulk BBQ” in plastic containers sell out each year, with this year being no exception.
Around the U.S., traditional whole hog cooking is not easy to find, with only a handful of restaurants still serving it weekly. It takes a lot of hard work but the result is special.
“You can get some of the bacon, you can get some of the ham, the shoulders, the loins, and all that is chopped up together,” Fineran said. “With whole hog, when you put it all together, you got all the flavor profiles with the white meats and the dark meats. There’s no better barbecue.”
During the awards ceremony, cooks who had been up for 40+ hours finally found out the results. In the Backyard category, Kenneth Clark of Backyard Bubba won first place, earning him $300. In the professional category, Billy Narron of Wicked Pig took first place and won $500. (See more winners from the event from the Neuse News.)
The strangest thing about the BBQ Fest on the Neuse may be that you could go to it and not experience what makes it special. On both Friday and Saturday, thousands of attendees bought tons of non-BBQ food from street vendors, watched popular country artist Easton Corbin put on a show, and checked out classic cars.
But the whole hog competition, which purposely has teams putting in so much effort Friday night and Saturday morning, is not really meant for the general public. That said, I did see a lot of people in the know walking around before the event kicked off on Saturday, and they were able to get some fresh whole hog bites from teams after they had been judged. And the masses can at least try some of the whole hogs in the form of tasty sandwiches throughout the day.
I certainly was glad I showed up early on Saturday morning so I could see teams finish up their hogs, observe the judging, listen to stories from pitmasters, and taste-test a few hogs. If you do find yourself near the BBQ Fest of the Neuse, you should check it out. Just be sure to make friends with the teams cooking whole hogs, and you’ll be able to get the full experience.
Co-Founder, The Smoke Sheet