By Georgia Smith
MTSU Seigenthaler News Service
Approaching the competitors at the 35th High on the Hog Festival, the aroma of smoked meat fills the nose, making stomachs rumble. It’s a signal that it’s time to eat.
At Redbones, a barbecue team of one from Florence, Alabama, Russ Allen does everything from operating the grill, seasoning the food, chopping vegetables, to making the finishing touches before turning in his dish to the judges. He’s a man of wide girth who sports a long, wavy, reddish beard, sort of a Santa Claus if the North Pole figure ever put on an apron and fired up a mound of charcoal. On his head is a REDBONES ball cap. It’s almost time to cook and he’s laboring away at his food preparation, rubbing meat, adding herbs and making sure everything is to his satisfaction. As he fills a tray of multi-colored peppers with a zesty sausage filling of his own recipe, he grins from ear to ear. He is definitely in his element.
Allen has been cooking in BBQ competitions since 2018. It is his much beloved hobby where he travels to different states, makes some delicious food and meets lifelong friendships.
He began his cooking journey as a pastime when his three children went off to college. He began with smaller, local competitions near his hometown but soon began to qualify for more competitive venues in other states. One of his most exciting accomplishments was winning the world in the chicken division with the Kansas City BBQ Society in 2020.
At this year’s High on the Hog, Allen entered the sausage, rib, chicken and pork butt categories on May 20 and 21. “It’s just good to be here, gathered around with a bunch of BBQ family,” said Allen.
The competition was intense for this year's Backyard BBQ division. Judges crowded in the tasting room building on the grounds to sample entries.
“We have some top-notch teams here, along with some other teams that are just now getting started in competitive cooking,” said 30-plus-year BBQ judge, Myron Barry. “It's something I've enjoyed coming to for years. Unfortunately, I missed it during Covid. It was good to see all the teams come back and start cooking again this year.”
Allen said the High on the Hog event is a family-oriented event in a humble small-town setting. Even with all his success in his cooking endeavors, Allen is simply happy to be there, relaxing in his fold-out chair, watching the gray smoke rise off the grill that is located on the porch of his trailer.
“Don't let the big rigs, expensive smokers and trailers intimidate you. Everybody started out in the bed of their truck with a one-hundred-dollar Weber grill from Lowe's or Walmart. It is all for comfort. Not for show,” said Allen.
At the Winchester competition, Allen placed fifth in the chicken category. He beamed when his name was called. His positivity is contagious; the whole room smiled at his accomplishment
“Russ is my BBQ brother,” said competitor Pat Swindoll with Leela Q BBQ. “We go everywhere together. He’s a great stand-up kinda guy; he’ll help anyone and give you the shirt off his back.”
Allen plans to stay in competitive cooking for many years. He said that barbecuing has taken him to places he would have never gone to and introduced him to great friends all over the country. Fellow competitors view Redbones as a grilling force whose best grilling days are ahead.
"Everybody loves to win but we're not in this for the money. We're here to support the event and its causes and have a good time. If you do luck up and get a call and win, it's the only sport I know where everybody cheers you on,” said Allen.
Georgia Ann Smith is one of nine Middle Tennessee State University journalism students who recently spent two and a half weeks in Franklin County writing stories for the Herald Chronicle. More of their work can be found at www.theroadtripclass.com.