What began as a backyard barbecuing hobby has turned into both a competitive-streak and livelihood.
Jonathan and Leanne Thompson of Slater, along with the help of their three sons - Kian, 9, Noah, 6, and Grady, 3 - began competing in barbecuing competitions approximately four years ago. They call themselves JT’s Smokewagon BBQ Team. Jonathan said it was his sister and other family members who talked him into entering his first barbecue competition. It was a win at that first competition that encouraged the family to "do a few more," Jonathan said.
Since then, the family has competed in a number of competitions each year in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. The family’s most recent win came at the Hog Wild Barbecue competition held in Emmetsburg at the Wild Rose Casino, Aug. 23-24. While there, they earned first place in the people’s choice competition for their pork entry, fourth place in the pork category, top 10 placing in the chicken category and eighth place overall (out of approximately 34 teams) in the competition.
Jonathan said the people’s choice category is where those attending the competition as spectators get to taste-test the various meats, without knowing who cooked each meat.
"I take a lot of pride in the fact that the general public, a vast majority of the time, chooses my stuff," Jonathan said.
The high placings at Emmetsburg are typical of how the family has done at the other competitions they’ve entered in the past. They’ve won awards in all categories - pork, chicken, ribs, brisket - at some point during their years of competition. Pork is the meat the family seems to win with the most, Jonathan said, and they have earned first place on numerous occasions with it.
Jonathan said the food he prepares is "true to southern tradition, slow-smoked pit barbecue." He uses his own spices and sauce combinations, with a knowledge of how the various flavorings work together.
"I don’t have a secret, I just make stuff how I like it," Jonathan said.
He did, however, say the key to his success is knowing how to properly season the meat products so the layers of flavor melt together. His cooking skills are the result of working in several restaurants growing up, and after college, working as a chef. He has also studied techniques on barbecuing meats and how to properly slow cook them to bring out the flavors.
While at competitions, Jonathan is the chief cook, but is quick to give credit to his wife and three boys for their role in the family’s success.
"I couldn’t do it without my wife. She keeps me on track and is a really big help with cleanup and setup," Jonathan said.
The boys also assist with cleanup and the loading and unloading of equipment and meat for the competition. Jonathan said they are also the family’s cheering section.
When the Thompsons are not busy preparing for or participating in a competition, they are busy with their catering business, JT’s Smokewagon BBQ Catering Company. The family offers everything from appetizers to award-winning smoked meats to homemade sides and desserts.
An increase in business for the catering company has prevented the family from entering as many competitions as they have in the past, but they plan to continue competing. Sometimes they will be up against tough competition, but "I like to feel I can do a good enough job that I can compete with the big boys," Jonathan said.