Masters of the grill unite to help ill 11-year-old
It's a meeting of the masters, a smoky collaboration that's bringing the best in the field from all over the country to Augusta County.
"At the very least, it's the barbecue event of the year," says John Atkins, Virginia and national barbecue champ, of Saturday's Q-ing for a Cure event in Waynesboro.
Atkins owns The Barbecue Connection in Palmyra and leads the winning "Pigs on the Run" touring barbecue competition team. Atkins, along with champs from Texas, Pennsylvania and other points east, west and in-between, will haul his cookers over the mountain and along the back roads long before dawn Saturday to Hugh K. Cassell Elementary School in Waynesboro.
The catalyst for this off-the-beaten-path meeting of some of the world's greatest barbecue chefs is an 11-year-old boy, Justin Harris, a student at the school and a junior barbecue champ in his own right.
Justin is also a cancer patient fighting for his life at St. Jude's Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
"We hope to raise at least $5,000 for Justin's treatment," Atkins said. "It's hard to believe what this type of tragedy does to a family financially."
"The barbecue community is like a family, and their support has been awesome," said Mark Harris, Justin's father. Mark is an emergency medical technician and ambulance driver for Augusta Hospital Corp. and the owner of Bubba's Barbecue in Crimora. He and Justin have cooked for Atkins' Pigs On the Run team ever since "Bubba" met the head pig at a competition in Lynchburg.
Justin was just beginning his career as a junior champ when he noticed a significant swelling in his wrist. "We'd been on vacation and thought he'd just hurt it in the surf," Mark Harris said. But tests revealed a rare kind of childhood cancer, aggressive and already widespread.
After surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy, Justin has been in an experimental program at St. Jude's since September, with good results so far. His friends from the slow-smoking world have rallied since the beginning, Mark said, and the flood of notes, autographed books and offers of help has never stopped.
Not only are the big names in the business coming to Augusta County, they've also sent autographed cookbooks, barbecue equipment, gadgets and paraphernalia for a silent auction. Area benefactors have joined them with all kinds of auction items, and wonderful gifts are still coming in for an auction that will total 200 to 300 items.
Atkins, who says he was the first to teach Justin how to properly cook a hamburger on the grill, said the well-known Woodbridge barbecue restaurant Dixie Bones is donating a significant amount of the meat to be injected and smoked Saturday. Bluegrass musicians from the area have volunteered to strike an upbeat note, and the ladies and men of Augusta County churches are baking 500 helpings of cakes, pies and cookies for a sweet ending to one of the best meals available anywhere.
"Even the sides will be homemade," Atkins said.
With all that talent gathered in one place, the coleslaw and the baked beans will be made from scratch. "As far as I know, only the rolls will be bought," he said.
Atkins and Harris will start well before sunrise Saturday morning to cook the meat slowly on their huge grills outside the school. They'll later be joined by their colleagues from Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia, who will help pull and slice the huge amount of meat needed to feed 500 hungry people.
When the smoke clears, the champs hope to have raised a significant amount for their young friend. Atkins said a couple of "firsts" will also be accomplished.
"For one thing, we will prove that even barbecue chefs can labor for hours with no beer; for another, it will introduce beef barbecue to Augusta County."
In honor of one of Saturday's chefs, "Texas Rib Ranger" Bill Millroy, who's a national and international competitor with his Texas-style beef barbecue, barbecued beef brisket as well as pork will be piled high on every plate. Atkins will introduce beef barbecue to the Daylily Festival this year as well.
One warning, though, from Atkins: "Pork or beef, don't ever let me see you putting ketchup on our barbecue. It's been painstakingly flavored and cooked slowly for hours with smoke. I've told my team that if they see someone using ketchup, to grab the plate back and refund the money."