Barbecue Boys’ Club No More

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These Kansas City women prove that good barbecue hath no gender

Words by Kendall Wenaas

The barbecue world can be a boys’ club—but these Kansas City women aren’t letting that scare them. The city, which is home to the country’s largest barbecue society, brings together meat specialties from all over the States. And from cutting the meat to judging the brisket, each of these women play a major part in the process.

The Rule Maker

CAROLYN WELLS
Carolyn’s Favorite Thing to Barbecue: Pork Ribs

Though food has been bringing families together for centuries, Carolyn Wells learned firsthand that sauce is thicker than blood. She, along with her late husband Gary Wells and friend, Rick Welch, founded the Kansas City Barbeque Society in 1985. And over the last 31 years, she’s formed bonds with barbecue connoisseurs across the country.

“It’s been the best extended family that anybody could have,” Wells said. “We regard barbecuing as a culinary technique, a sport and an art form.”

Wells is credited by many for creating the competitive barbecue world in the Midwest. Although KCBS began as a small club of 30 members, it’s since become a worldwide organization.

“There was a hardcore little group of us who loved to cook and eat,” Wells said. “And here we are, 30 years later with 21,000 members worldwide, sanctioning 500 contests a year. We’ve certified over 40,000 judges, and we’re the most blessed people to be in barbecue at this point in time.”

Anyone can apply to host a KCBS-sponsored contest. Wells says the vast majority of the contests they sponsor are for charity or civic awareness. Contest hosts then pay a nominal fee in exchange for KCBS’ services.

And while, sure, a person could hold a barbecue contest without KCBS, they’re better off if they do. Thanks to years of experience, KCBS has created rules and regulations for running a contest as smoothly as possible. When an organization hires KCBS, they get access to these perfected rules as well as access to KCBS’ database of judges and teams.

That way, they’re sure the people involved know their barbecue. On top of that, KCBS sends representatives to the contest to make sure everything runs smoothly.

While the processes might be standard, these competitions vary in size and scale, and they’re held year-round across the country. Gender variations at the barbecue concours are just as sizable—KCBS’ demographics are about 85 percent male and 15 percent female.

“It is a testosterone-packed sport,” Wells said.

Yet, she believes that most teams have at least one woman. “[Women are] standing on their own,” she said. “They’re getting more visibility.”

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And when it comes to judging, there’s no bias, Wells said. Each dish is placed in a white carryout container, which is numbered. Then the KCBS re-number it—using a key that only they have—and present it to the judges.

“When judges open the box, they don’t have any idea if a man, woman or someone’s robot made it,” Wells said. “So we’re completely colorblind, gender-blind—you’re judging meat in the box.”

The Meat Slayer

DONNA PITMAN
Donna’s Favorite Thing to Barbecue: Chicken
Donna’s Favorite Meat to Cut: Ribeyes

Typically, when a person pictures a butcher shop, they picture a strong-armed man behind a large knife. And they’re not wrong to do so. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the meat cutting field is predominantly male. But that’s not exactly the scene at Curt’s Meats of Kansas City. To begin with, it isn’t owned by a guy named Curt. It’s owned by butcher Donna Pitman. And Donna isn’t the only woman behind the counter.

“We currently have a predominantly female staff of meat cutters—they do a great job. They’re very customer-oriented but they’re also very particular on how our fresh meat case looks.”

Pitman has owned the shop since 1989. While hiring mostly women wasn’t intentional, the store has capitalized on the uniqueness of a mainly female meat cutting staff (four out of the six meat cutters are women). For the past 15 years, Curt’s has marketed their staff as the “Famous Lady Meat Cutters” and they’ve generated a following beyond the Midwest.

“We have people who come in from Boston just to buy the brisket because they’re hard to come by up in New England,” Pitman said. “We also supply a number of barbecue teams, not only locally, but across the country and the world, with competition meats for various barbecue.”

What does it take? According to Pitman, detail, ability to focus and safety consciousness. Does gender play a part in it? Pitman said she’s not sure.

But one thing is for certain—Curt’s Famous Lady Meat Cutters are slicing through stereotypes.

The Cookbook Connoisseurs

KAREN ADLER AND JUDITH FERTIG
Karen’s Favorite Thing to Barbecue: Smoked Shrimp
Judith’s Favorite Thing to Barbecue: Pork Butt

Copy of Karen Adler Judith Fertig

Photo courtesy of Karen Adler and Judith Fertig

Though Karen Adler and Judith Fertig spent years competing in barbecue contests, a few decades and dozens of sauce-slathered dishes taught the two that they prefer camaraderie when it comes to cooking up barbecue.

After retiring from their all-female competitive barbecue team, The ’Cue Queens, they rebranded themselves as the cookbook-wielding BBQ Queens.

Together, they’ve produced nine recipe-filled page-turners that focus on barbecuing and grilling.

The two have been prominent in the Midwest barbecue world since the 80s, making a big saucey splash with their book, The BBQ Queens’ Big Book of BBQ.

The queens have seen it all: From over-smoked meat to slow-cooked sweetness. But the two said their success was served up with a side of sexism. When the pair released their Big Book, they were hit with some criticism from their prospective audience because they weren’t barbecue pitmasters—and they weren’t men.

“When we do cooking classes around the country, there’s always a man that will come up and say ‘Let me tell you how I do my brisket.’ Or ‘Let me tell you how I do my…’ whatever it happens to be,” Fertig said. “I think men tend to latch onto one way to do things and stick with that—sort of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”

But The BBQ Queens aren’t only known for their cookbooks. The pair is also involved with the Kansas City Barbecue Society through Greasehouse University. Both Adler and Fertig have their “Philosophy of Barbecue” degrees.

“It’s fictitious, but delicious,” Fertig said.

Only 36 people have their Ph.B.—one-third of them women, two-thirds men. To receive their “degree,” participants have to submit a thesis (The Queens used their Big Book of BBQ) and take an oral exam that includes questions on everything from spices to steaks.

“We had to know the difference between a dry rub that was from Texas or from the Carolinas or from Kansas City,” Adler said.

“We did bribe them.” We served them a very high-style black-tie barbecue dinner, so I’m sure that didn’t hurt getting our Ph.B. either,” she joked.

Adler and Fertig, now members of the faculty, have gone from pupil to professor, now administering the exam themselves and chowing down on toothsome “bribes” from a new swath of students.

The Competitive Caterer

BETSY MASTERS
Betsy’s Favorite Thing to Barbecue: Ribs

Copy of Betsy Masters

Photo courtesy of Betsy Masters, right

Betsy Masters and her barbecue team, Squeal of Approval, don’t limit themselves to competitions.

“We compete and cater—the catering helps finance our BBQ habit!” Masters said.

Masters has been entering and winning barbecue contests since 1993, forming Squeal of Approval in 2003. The team of two is made up of Masters and her sister, Allison Verman.

“The first year that we competed, we only cooked four contests but did well, and we were hooked,” Masters said. “In 2005, we competed in the All-Star BBQ Showdown. We were an amateur team competing against professional BBQers.”

The team won the final competition in New York City and took home the prize of $25,000.

In order to keep track of their points during the competition season, one sister has to be listed as the head pitmaster – the position who typically calls the shots. But, they find that a teamwork approach to cooking works best for them. Masters emphasizes the importance of practicing for competitions. “You just have to get out there and try,” Masters said. “Once you figure out what works for you stick with it!”  

Masters agrees that competitive barbecuing is perceived as a man’s sport, but that there are more female competitors every year. She’s not quite sure whether or not her gender is an advantage or disadvantage.

“I don’t know if gender plays into it or not, but we are both very organized,” Masters said. And it’s a trait that’s proven successful.

Squeal of Approval has won three grand championships and four Kansas City Barbecue Society competitions. (Yes, the same KCBS that Carolyn Wells founded. The barbecue world is a tight-knit community—Squeal of Approval is also co-sponsored by Curt’s Meats.) They compete in an average of ten contests each year.

Like Wells, Masters has found barbecue to be a family affair. Picking up her mother’s trade, Masters’ daughter Lauren won a “Kid’s Q” competition when she was five.

Masters and many women before her have been breaking barbecue boundaries. And as more girls join the barbecue family, they’re sending gender stereotypes up in smoke.

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