Brush up on the latest news: the trendsetters, the new equipment and the best mail-order sources.
If the teams have names like the Swine Flew, Smoking in the Boys Room, and Oink, Cackle and Moo, you're at a BBQ cook-off. Regional and state championships lead up to the Big Three, where prizes are worth up to $65,000.
Memphis in May is the nation's oldest and largest pork barbecue contest, attracting more than 100,000 spectators. Pork is king here (despite frequent Elvis sightings): Contestants compete in whole-hog, shoulder and rib categories, not to mention a "Miss Piggy" competition featuring half-naked fat men in porcine drag (901-525-4611; www.memphisinmay.org).
The American Royal Barbecue contest in Kansas City is more ecumenical, honoring brisket, chicken, sausage and pork. Wander the grounds and you'll see smokers ranging from conventional rigs to a retrofitted Cessna airplane. There's also a sauce competition presided over by barbecue authority Remus Powers, resplendent in a bowler, tuxedo and rib-bone studs (816-221-9800; www.americanroyal.com).
The Jack Daniel's Invitational in Lynchburg, Tennessee, is relatively small and serene--perhaps because it's held in a dry county. Not that this diminishes the festivity, because in addition to world-class barbecue and fried pie (a Tennessee specialty), there's clog dancing, rolling-pin tossing and "butt" bowling (615-340-1035).
Judging: One of the best ways to experience a BBQ contest is as a judge. For information, call Memphis in May or the Kansas City Barbeque Society at 800-963-5227.
Sauce mop Shaped like a mini floor mop, this brush from Charcoal Companion allows heavy-duty basting and is handy when cooking lots of meat ($4; 888-789-0650 or www.barbecue-store.com).
Grill wok No grill tragedy is greater than watching bite-size foods fall between the bars of the grate. That's why Charcoal Companion invented a grill wok, a pot made from perforated metal. The small holes in the bottom allow smoke and fire to reach the food and flavor it ($15; 888-789-0650 or www.barbecue-store.com).
Spritzer One key to moist barbecue is spraying the food with a flavorful liquid, like wine or apple cider. You can use an inexpensive plastic spray bottle--the kind available for under $10 at any hardware or housewares store. (Note: Spritzers work better with thin liquids, like vinegar, than with thicker liquids, like oil.)
Grill pad Place this fireproof pad under the grill when cooking on a deck to prevent flying sparks from burning the wood and to protect the surface against grease spills. The Original Grill Pad from DiversiTech is sold at hardware stores and specialty grill shops ($50; 800-241-8981 or www.grilllovers.com).
As a seven-time World Barbecue Champion, Paul Kirk finds his sauces in high demand all over the globe. Kirk first started making them, based on his parents' recipes, in 1981, while working at a restaurant in Kansas. The owner encouraged him to enter a barbecue competition; he took home first prize for chicken and second for ribs. He's won 435 more awards since then. His three Kansas City's Baron of Barbecue bottled sauces--Original, Nice & Spicy and Fire & Smoke--are still based on his parents' recipes, with a subtle Asian flavor added. (As much as Kirk likes barbecue, his favorite food is Chinese.) He'll specially craft "vanity bottles" of sauce based on your favorite fruits and spices; a doctor once paid $680 for a batch. Prices start at $45 an hour, plus the cost of the ingredients, with a two-case minimum order (913-262-6029).
The Barbecue Bible by Steven Raichlen. This hefty tome, which includes recipes and tips from open-fire enthusiasts all over the globe, will teach you everything from how to light the coals and cut up a chicken to how to make Senegalese fish yassa and Bombay tikka tacos ($28).
Barbecued Ribs, Smoked Butts and Other Great Feeds by Jeanne Voltz. This book starts by giving you practical advice on how to light a fire and ends with desserts like flaming bananas. Voltz, who traveled all over the country collecting recipes, gives us barbecue sauces from Florida, Texas, Georgia and three regions of the Carolinas ($20).
John Willingham's World Champion Bar-B-Q The author, a competition-winning Memphis barbecue chef, defines his craft simply as "low and slow" cooking in a covered vessel. His recipes, mainly from the American South, include sides like Cajun coleslaw and nostalgic desserts like Southern bread pudding ($28).
Joy of Cooking: All About Grilling This spin-off of the classic Joy of Cooking, also from authors Irma Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker, offers photos and recipes for classics like chicken and burgers, as well as salsas and marinades ($20).
The Thrill of the Grill by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby. Probably not the first book you'd turn to for burgers (which aren't in here, although barbecued bologna is); but if you're interested in grilled-tomato soup or Jamaican jerk chicken, you'll find them ($30).
Even those of us who don't live in Barbecue Central (the South and the Midwest) can sample America's best smoked meats. Many can be purchased by phone or over the Internet and shipped by overnight mail; most just need reheating when they arrive at your door. The editors at F&W taste-tested barbecue from a slew of mail-order sources; here are our favorite discoveries: Maurice's Gourmet Barbecue, in West Columbia, South Carolina, for falling-off-the bone, succulent pork ribs (800-MAURICE or www.mauricesbbq.com). Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, in Memphis, for vinegary, meaty pork ribs with a spicy dry rub (888-HOGSFLY or www.hogsfly.com). Moonlite Bar-B-Q, in Owensboro, Kentucky, for the house special mutton (sliced or chopped) and country ham steaks (800-322-8989 or www.moonlite.com). The County Line Barbecue, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for moist and meaty Texas-style beef ribs and super pork ribs (800-AIRRIBS or www.airribs.com). Thom Sehnert's Smoke House Market, in Chesterfield, Missouri, for a variety of smoked foods, including exceptional flank-steak jerky, ribs, turkey, ham, trout, shrimp and (his latest) pork chops (636-532-3314).
The Deluxe Firepit Grill by Frontgate simulates the feeling of a campfire: A 30-inch round pit holds logs as well as charcoal. You raise and lower the grate by turning a hand crank, so you can cook foods at low or high temperatures: ideal for slow-cooked ribs or quick-seared steaks ($895; 800-626-6488).