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When Happ and Becky Zook were approached nine years ago to help start an annual barbecue contest in LeRoy as part of Summerfest, the decision was easy.
As barbecue connoisseurs and certified judges, there couldn’t have been a more perfect pair to bring this contest to town.
Jim and Anita Allen helped put on the annual Summerfest event in LeRoy and wanted to expand and add something new. What better than a good, old-fashioned barbecue tasting contest?
And ever since the first year, Smokin’ In the Park has evolved into a two-day, community-oriented event that includes so much more than mouth-watering barbecue. This year, Smokin’ In the Park will be kicking off on Friday, June 7.
“It has changed from a backyard-type contest to one where several teams from the past have moved on to sanctioned contests and championships,” said Happ. “One of the teams in the very first contest has already stacked up two reserves and a grand champion.”
But there is one misconception about the barbecue contest that seems to keep recurring with community members. The contest is a contest, and the participants in the contest around allowed to feed the public due to health code violations. In the past, the aroma of slow-cooked barbecue has brought in many people that wanted to try the food. So the Zooks and the rest of their committee started bringing in a vendor just for the barbecue-loving public.
This year, Pit Master Allen Hightower will be serving up some delicious barbecue on Friday starting at 5 p.m. and Saturday starting at 11 a.m. Albones will also be providing “old school” barbecue during the event. So for all the community members that can’t resist the smell of pit barbecue, now you won’t have to.
But the intense competition will still be just as tight over in the contest area. Local judges, mostly from LeRoy and surrounding areas with a few certified judges, will get a briefing and short training before their taste buds go to work. There will be twenty judges for the event, who will be focusing on different aspects of the barbecue. Each judge will score each participant on appearance, taste and tenderness, and the barbecue with the highest score overall will win this year’s Smokin’ In the Park. Trophies will be given per category and for the top five overall winners. Cash prizes will accompany those trophies and a grand champion will be awarded the grand prize of $200.
“As [the event] has grown, we’ve gotten a few sponsors over the years. It allows for more money, which allows for more opportunities to give back to local organizations and charities,” said Becky.
With last year being the biggest event in the history of Smokin’ In the Park, the committee expects it to continue to grow.
With the help of some new committee members, the Zooks have been able to transform this event into a full two days of entertainment for the whole community and family. Nancy and Bob Spratt and Gail and Mike Hanafin all four joined in the planning a couple years ago and have brought in more entertainment and more food vendors to help draw in bigger crowds.
Along with the barbecue contest, people will be able to enjoy music on the Bandstand on Friday night. Pop Bottles & Friends, a country/bluegrass/gospel band, will be returning for another year. They will be hitting the stage at 7 p.m. and will be followed by Zach Linley, a country western singer, on the Bandstand at 9 p.m.
And one of the best things about the whole Smokin’ In the Park event is that it isn’t just about great barbecue.
“This event is something for the community,” said Becky. “Not only is it a chance to give back, but it’s something to bring excitement to the community and bring people together and back into the park.”
Saturday morning starts off with a breakfast service by the American Legion, a tradition that has been going on since the beginning but most people don’t know about. The breakfast begins at 6 a.m. for vendors and early birds and will run until 10 a.m. for any community members and travelers that want to attend.
The Rike House and Empire Township Museum will be open during the Smokin’ In the Park event with a new exhibit called “Here Comes the Brides.” The exhibit will feature bridal gowns spanning from 1820 until present day. The Rike House will be open from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday.
Back at the park as part of Smokin’ In the Park, the Zoo Lady will be there for painting faces and True Value will be setting up their bounce house for the younger generation of barbecue lovers.
But perhaps the biggest event that will run along with Smokin’ In the Park is the Car, Motorcycle and Hot Rod Show that is put on by the LeRoy Racing and Hot Rod Association.
The car show will feature cars and motorcycles of all kinds for people to walk through and enjoy. Registration for that will begin at 8 a.m. and the show will start at 10 a.m. on Saturday. A cruise to Bloomington for the participating cars will depart at 3:30 p.m.
“The car show and barbecue contest are separate but in addition to each other. It gives more of a variety to the community and a little bit more for people who can now see a car show and motorcycle show,” said Becky.
Possibly the biggest aspect of Smokin’ In the Park that many people aren’t aware is the contribution to the community.
In past years, proceeds from the event have been donated to places such as the City of LeRoy, Easter Seals, the American Legion, the LeRoy Princess Theatre and the Peal Meal program. Along with the committee donating back, some vendors also contribute to the local communities. The proceeds from the funnel cake vendor will all go toward the “Support Our Senior Veteran’s, Inc.” cause that helps support senior veterans.
This year will feature a patriotic theme for Smokin’ In the Park, with red, white and blue t-shirts available, as well as the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner and a presentation of colors.
“It is really a fun day,” said Nancy Spratt. “You can sit down in the park and enjoy the festivities. It is the best of small-town living.”
But Happ says the key to the event is that “it’s not about us, it’s about the community.”
And he gives special thanks to the community for stepping up with their monetary support and volunteering that has made this event possible and such a success each year.