As the contestants of the 35th High on the Hog Festival approach, the aroma of smoked meat fills the nose, making stomachs rumble. It is a signal that it is time to eat.
At Redbones, a one-man barbecue team from Florence, Alabama, Russ Allen does everything from running the grill, seasoning the food and cutting the vegetables to finishing it off before handing his dish over to the judges. .
He’s a tall man who sports a long, wavy reddish beard, a kind of Santa if ever the North Pole figure has put on an apron and lit a mound of charcoal. On his head is a REDBONES cap.
It’s almost time to cook, and he’s busy preparing his food, rubbing the meat, adding herbs, and making sure everything is to his satisfaction. As he fills a platter of multicolored peppers with a tangy sausage filling from his own recipe, he smiles from ear to ear. He is definitely in his element.
Allen has been cooking in barbecue competitions since 2018. It’s his beloved hobby where he travels to different states, cooks delicious dishes, and makes lifelong friendships.
He started his culinary journey as a hobby when his three children went to college. He started with smaller local meets near his hometown, but soon began to qualify for more competitive venues in other states. One of his most exciting accomplishments was winning the world title in the chicken division with the Kansas City BBQ Society in 2020.
At this year’s High on the Hog, Allen entered the sausage, ribs, chicken and pork butt categories on May 20 and 21.
“It’s just good to be here, gathered around a barbecue family group,” Allen said.
The competition has been intense for this year’s Backyard BBQ division. Judges crowded into the tasting room building on the grounds to sample entries.
“We have top-notch teams here, as well as other teams that are just getting into competitive cooking,” said Myron Barry, a barbecue judge for over 30 years. “It’s something I’ve loved coming to for years. Unfortunately I missed it during COVID. It was good to see all the teams come back and start cooking again this year.
Allen said the High on the Hog event is family-oriented in a modest, small-town setting. Even with all his success in his cooking endeavors, Allen is just happy to be there, relaxing in his folding chair, watching the gray smoke rise from the grill that sits on the porch of his trailer.
“Don’t let the big rigs, expensive smokers and trailers intimidate you. Everyone started in the bed of their truck with a $100 Weber grill from Lowe’s or Walmart. It’s all for comfort. Not for show,” Allen said.
At the Winchester contest, Allen placed fifth in the chicken category. He beamed when his name was called. His positivity is contagious; the whole room smiles at his achievement.
“Russ is my BBQ brother,” said contestant Pat Swindoll with Leela Q BBQ. “We go everywhere together. It’s a great type of stand-up; he will help anyone and give you the shirt he has on his back.
Allen plans to stay in competitive cooking for many years. He said the barbecue took him to places he would never have been and introduced him to great friends all over the country. Other competitors view Redbones as a grilling force whose best grilling days are yet to come.
“Everyone likes to win, but we’re not here for the money. We’re here to support the event and its causes and have a good time. If you’re lucky and you get a call and you win, it’s the only sport I know where everyone is cheering you on,” Allen said.
Georgia Ann Smith is one of nine journalism students from Middle Tennessee State University who recently spent two and a half weeks in Franklin County writing for the Herald Chronicle. More of their work can be found at www.theroadtripclass.com.