Places of Reno: A Labor Day Weekend at a Rib Cook-Off
Student journalist Temi Durojaiye, who recently moved to Reno from Lagos, reports on his unique experience at his first American cook-off, and the cultural differences between food festivals in the United States and Nigeria.
My First Labor Day Weekend
For six days, thousands of people throng through Victoria Avenue in Sparks, the city right next to Reno, Nevada, exploring and enjoying the wide array of food, crafts, and games.
It seemed the perfect way to enjoy my first Labor Day weekend — watching professional rib cookers go to work trying to outdo each other and earn the title of “Best Ribs in the West”, for at least one year. There’s simply something surreal about competitive cooking; to elevate such a common endeavor to sport is utterly fascinating.
So, even though I’m not the biggest fan of ribs — I think they’re too greasy and salty — I was nonetheless excited about the “cook-off” aspect of the festival.
The Hassle of Getting to Places in the U.S. By Bus
If you don’t drive in Reno, then you probably already know that getting anywhere is an unnecessary hassle. However, quite unusually, I was excited for my trip. Not only was I going to the Sparks area for the first time, I was also going to see the Centennial bus station, and having become fairly acquainted with the 4th Street station — I have to go through the station to get anywhere at all — it was a welcome new experience.
The actual trip wasn’t quite as noteworthy, and I arrived at the Nugget Resort somewhat underwhelmed. It took me a while to find Victoria Avenue where the event was located and by that time, all the hype I’d built for the event had dissipated.
Enjoying the Fair
“I’ve got just two rules,” the operator of the round-up at the welcoming fair said, “Put your feet on the ground, and have fun.” I liked it. This was the promise of fun that had attracted me to the cook-off in the first place — just as long as you were safe of course. I spent a little more time going through the different rides and games which included the sizzler, a house of horrors, a darts game, and so much more.
Just as I was exiting the fair, I met a clown and stopped to chat with him. As it turns out, three years ago, he’d tried to book a show at the festival and when he couldn’t, he packed up his things and began driving to Victoria Avenue despite worries that the fair was a ‘grown-up’ event.
It turned out to have just enough children for him to make balloon animals for, and “remind them they’re beautiful.” He also especially liked how friendly the people were compared to the bigger cities he visits when he tours the country. I agreed and left to find the competitive rib cooking event, which was my own ultimate destination.
Sounds and Smells of the Rib Cook-Off
It was easy to see why people loved ribs.
The sounds and smells that accompany the grilling of meat to perfection are all at once, mellifluous, mouth-watering, and mesmerizing. It took all my willpower to maintain my resolve. The ribs were served in half-rack or full-rack style, often accompanied with regular fries or sweet potato fries. There were also lots of other side-dishes from regular options like beans and mac ’n’ cheese, to less popular options like alligator fingers, deep fried peaches and frozen bananas.
I also visited BJ’s Barbeque, a 7-time winner of the cook-off, and winner of the 2016 edition. The owner, Jake, has been to the festival for 28 years, and seen its growth from a three-day event with a small crowd and a limited number of rib cookers, to a six-day event with 23 rib cookers from all over the country, and a large crowd — culminating in a peak number of orders two years ago.
Much More than just Ribs
Beyond the rib cookers, the street is also littered with merchants selling homemade arts & crafts, ranging from snow globes, to paintings, and even jewelry. The intricacy and artistry of the different items is stunning, and one artist in particular — a rope artist — catched my eye. His rendition of a unicorn and a dragon were so stunning and I now bemoan my decision not to purchase either item.
Then, there’s the music.
Although, I don’t recognize any of the bands playing, the rock music is electric and the crowd is getting into it. The crowd is an eclectic mix of people, and it makes me smile how music can have the same effect on people so different. A few people get up to enjoy a dance with their partners, or with themselves, and the fun is infectious as more people join the group in front of the stage.
Even as I walk away from the stage, and the music filters above the surrounding noise, I can’t help but imagine coming back with my partner.
Finally, There’s a Winner!
The cooking part of the event may lack the spectacle of MasterChef, and other competitive cooking shows but it was still a contest, and there had to be a winner. After six days of grilling, and about 240,000 pounds of ribs served to an eager and willing public, judges were invited to select a rib dish worthy of the $10,000 cash prize.
Somewhat unexpectedly, a first-time winner emerged… Montana Q Bar-B-Que from Frenchtown, Montana, only attending the cook-off for the fourth year, added to their People’s Choice award in 2016 by snagging first place, and owner, Tom Moua almost couldn’t believe it.
“I honestly didn’t think that we were gonna win,” he said. “When they called my numbers, I just got that tingling feeling in my body, like oh my god! I pulled it off,” he added.
Bringing this Type of Event to Lagos?
This was the 30th anniversary of the festival, and given how popular the event is — it brings people from all over the world to Sparks — it was special for me to share in something that’s a big part of the community here.
“The event has a huge economic impact in Northern Nevada,” Randy Kennedy, Marketing Director of the Nugget Resort said. “There’s a little something there for everyone [and] locals feel very much a part of it.”
In Lagos, the food festivals are much smaller, and have yet to truly become a part of the food culture there, so it’s often the same niche crowd who are interested in the different festivals around town. But there’s a culture shift happening though — especially in the bigger cities, and more professional chefs are sort of coming up and becoming mainstream.
I definitely hope I get to see a food festival like the Best in the West Rib Cook-Off in Lagos. It was six days (even though, I didn’t get to see all of it) of premium food, great music, unbridled fun, and a sense of community. Kennedy put it more succinctly:
“If you’ve never been here before, it’s really something to see,” he said.