Cooking competitions have gotten to be as intense as a glowing hunk of hardwood charcoal
Arnold Garza didn’t know what he was doing the first time he entered a barbecue cook-off.
He rolled up to Hitchcock Good Ole Days in 1989 with a plan to cook chicken, ribs and brisket.
Sort of a plan, anyway.
“The guy that ran the cook-off, he kids me all the time because I was asking like a 100 questions and I was nervous as hell,” Garza said. “I just kept bugging him for all this different stuff.”
The barbecue bugging paid off. Garza won second place in the brisket category and hasn’t slowed down since. Over the past 30 years, Garza has become one of the preeminent cooks in Galveston County’s barbecue scene. He has won so many trophies, they won’t all fit in his house, or in his parents’ house.
He took the title of Galveston County’s triple crown champion by winning cook-offs at the Galveston County Fair & Rodeo, Hitchcock’s Good Ole Days and La Marque Bayou Fest. His team won five of the first seven triple crown championships.
Ten years ago, Garza retired from his job at as machinist at a refinery in Texas City and opened Texas Pit Stop BBQ in La Marque. He later opened another Texas Pit Stop in Galveston and is working on a third in Texas City with plans for another concept in Webster.
Barbecue is serious business in Texas. Cook-off competitions are intense. The largest contests draw hundreds of teams and offer cash-prize purses running into thousands of dollars.
The scene has grown beyond what Garza walked into in the 1990s. Barbecue cook-offs are topics of TV shows, and the secrets of winning barbecue can be discovered in a deep dive on YouTube.
“The competition has gotten really, really fierce now,” he said. “Back when we were winning a lot, if you had 100 teams out there, probably 30 of those teams were serious cookers. The rest were just out there thinking they could cook. But nowadays, it’s big business.”
Even so, Garza and the Texas Pit Stop BBQ team — Jeff Carmen, Sandra Mendoza, Shane Dickerson, Jayne and Bryan Medellin — have kept winning. The team’s brisket placed second at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Bar-B-Que Contest and last November, it placed second at the International Barbeque Cookers Association championship in Donna, Texas.
There are upstart contenders to Garza’s reign, including his son, Jason Garza, a member of cook-off team Los Primos Cookers.
In 2019, Los Primos, founded by Jason Garza’s cousin Dustin Robinson, won the Galveston County Fair & Rodeo’s grand championship.
With the fair canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19, Los Primos technically is the two-year reigning champ. Jason Garza said he was looking forward to finally defending the title at this year’s fair. The cook-off will go on this year, but the event will be mostly limited to teams participating in the contest and won’t be open to the general public, according to the Galveston County Fair & Rodeo.
There are a lot of reasons to look forward to this year’s competition, the younger Garza said.
“We obviously like to compete, but we also just like getting family and friends together,” he said. “And most of the time, it’s to raise money for the local schools and the kids for scholarship.
“So, it’s also a good cause for everybody to get together and spend some money. And, you know, the excitement of winning a trophy, that’s always a plus.”
Many teams with bona fides are entering this year’s contest, but there’s really no way to tell who’s going to win a given cook-off, because so much goes into a winning dish, said Brittany Whitfield, a founding member, along with her husband, John, of Palm Leaf Cookers.
“Nobody knows,” she said. “It’s all about the texture. There’s got to be a pull and an elasticity to the brisket. You want it to have a flavor. You don’t want it to be dry. It’s extremely hard.
“There’s stuff that we’ve won first-place trophies on, and even if it’s the exact same recipe, it may not hit this year.”
What does help is experience and a little guidance.
The Whitfields didn’t know what they were doing the first time they entered a barbecue cook-off, but they’d had a long time to think about it.
They had been on a waiting list for seven years when they got word they’d finally landed a spot in the competition.
John Whitfield acknowledged he wasn’t quite ready for the call. He named his team after one of the first things he had handy, a straw hat he often wears while cooking.
When the Whitfields rolled up at the Galveston County Fair & Rodeo that first year, their rookie status was obvious.
Luckily, their cook-off site neighbor knew a little something about being the new guy. Arnold Garza took pity on the Whitfields as they desperately searched for a power outlet.
It was the start of a relationship that has seen the Whitfields’ and Garza’s teams cook alongside each other for years.