VALDOSTA -- The Lowndes County Courthouse lawn never smelled so good.

The 100 Black Men of Valdosta hosted its 8th Annual Valdosta's Top Barbecue Chefs Cook-off Saturday, and more than two thousand people came out to enjoy friends, music and the smells of ribs, chicken, sausage, brisket and chopped pork sizzling on huge smokers.

An early rain kept the crowds down early on, but barbecue connoisseurs were in place by early afternoon, sampling the wares of the 15 competitors and listening to live blues on an outdoor stage.

"I am extremely happy," said Roy Copeland, the event coordinator.

"I think the rain washed us down and brought even more people out. It's at least as many people as in prior years. Everyone understands the real basis for this from the contestants to the sponsors. They know what cause we're serving. It's been a good cross section of Valdosta. That's what it ought to be about: fraternizing and having a good time."

Proceeds from the event go to the organization's scholarship program and SAT preparation courses. Copeland said the cook-off has sponsored more than 20 scholarships for students to attend schools all over the country.

The event was sponsored by First Federal Savings and Loan, ASA Surveying and Engineering, the Central Valdosta Development Authority and Guardian Bank.

The 15 competitors marked the largest number of entries in the event's history.

Contestants were allowed to enter one main dish -- either ribs, chicken or pork -- though most stuck to the traditional barbecue ribs, said Willie T. Head Jr., president of the 100 Black Men of Valdosta.

"Each year we've seen it increase and we fully expect (more entries) next year," he said. "A number of groups have been here virtually every year."

Once the competition was settled, the competitors sold plates to the hungry public. And die-hard fans clearly have their favorites. Miller's Barbecue, which won first place in the Commercial division last year, but failed to place this year, still had a huge line of people waiting for a taste.

David Williams and Emmanuel Illiomme took home top honors in the Backyard-Patio division. It was their first time in the cook-off, though both have cooked barbecue for years, most recently operating South Patterson Barbecue.

"We decided to enter to show Valdosta we've got some pretty good barbecue," Williams said. "We make our own sauce. Everything is from scratch. Maybe next year people will know something different."

While Williams and Illiomme wouldn't reveal all of their secrets, they gave a quick rundown of how they their signature ribs.

They start with racks of spare ribs, marinate them for a couple of hours in a special rib dredge and then slow smoke the meat over oak and pecan logs. Three hours later, it's time for a little more heat and the sauce: a spicy, vinegar-based concoction applied with a sauce mop.

Sam Watts, representing Sam's Barbecue, won first place in the highly competitive Commercial division, which is populated by some of the area's most popular barbecue restaurants.

Watts won first in the 2001 Backyard division and said he thought he was in that category again, only to find himself competing against the heavy hitters. He's been competing for four years with the help of friends and family.

"I learned it all from two great old guys, Danny Hollis and Willie James Bankersee," he said.

While Watts chatted with customers, his partner Fred Green managed one of the grills. "Sam does the politicking and I do the cooking," he said.

Green said customer service is always important, friendly competition.

"We always work to see the customer happy," he said. "We say if it's not right, bring it back and we'll make it right."

Watts and Green also start with a dry rub and let ribs sear on the grill over low heat. Then, they wrap them up in aluminum foil and smoke them until tender.

"There's not much to it," Green said. "All it takes is time. I think anybody can cook these ribs. You've just got to be patient with it."

Watts also got raves for his "drunken chicken," a whole chicken grilled while seated on a beer can. The beer boils up and helps cook and flavor the inside of the bird. Again, the secret is time.

"Fast cooking just doesn't taste as good as slow cooking," Green said. "You've got to take your time."

To contact reporter Bill Roberts, please call 244-3400, ext. 245.

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