By Jose Gonzalez
31 teams cooked off against each other on Main Street for Herscher’s fourth-annual Squeals Barbecue Competition on Saturday.
Teams from Illinois and Wisconsin converged for a fun competition with a cookout and tailgate atmosphere.
The competition even featured Illinois State Representative, Lindsay Parkhurst.
Parkhurst, of Kankakee, said she has participated in all three previous competitions and has learned a lot going into this year’s event.
“I’ve really learned a lot about how to cook ribs and chicken thighs,” Parkhurst related. “I never knew how to cook a chicken thigh before, but you learn different techniques and you learn it’s not what you make at home. For competition, they want different standards, so you have a learning curve to become familiar with, including the texture of the rub, the ribs and the tug of the meat.”
Parkhurst stated she came out to support not only the event but also Herscher, as the competition is the staple of the summer.
“One of the reasons I’m here is so I’m approachable and people can stop by, talk to me, taste my ribs and shake my hand,” Parkhurst continued. “I think it’s good for them to see and hear about the community that I’m a part of.”
The mainstay of any competition are the judges, and there were a handful there to critique the different kinds of food.
Don Zajac, of Herscher, the president of the American Culinary Federation, represented the professional judging of each dish.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Zajac said. “I think it gives an opportunity for the backyard cook to show their wares and I think it’s great for the town of Herscher.”
Zajac commented he didn’t vary his style of judging from any other competition he’s participated in, nor his expectations in his 40 years as an executive chef, nor has his dedication changed.
“It’s a passion for cooking,” Zajac said. “As far as competition, I’m a competitive person by nature.”
He also said compared to the last three years, this year has also been a delight to participate in.
“I think it’s fantastic he has 31 teams. I think it speaks great of Dan (Martin) and what a great ambassador he is for Herscher that these teams grew from a handful of competitors to 31 or 32,” Zajac noted.
Another judge, Cheryl Weaver, of Cabery, expressed she’s been a part of the Squeals competition since it started four years ago, and brings not only competitive experience, but also food service experience with her.
Weaver said there are differences for her style between home and a barbecuing competition.
But, “It’s all about flavor and whether you’re at home or judging, it’s either there or it’s not,” Weaver shared.
Weaver said the specific criteria hasn’t changed since year one as they judge taste, tenderness, and appearance.
Weaver related she got into the competition based on her experience in the food industry.
“I have been in the food and beverage industry since I was 15 years old and I’ve known Dan for many, many years and Dan asked me and I’ve been involved in cooking. I’ve owned food businesses, I’ve owned a bar, and I own a food trailer,” Weaver stated, “I always expect good food. Backyard cooks are some of the best cooks in the world.”
The competition consisted of three individual winners for each dish, a reserve winner and a grand champion.
Mike McCaslan, of Kankakee, represented Big M’s Barbecue and took home the “Best Chicken” award at the competition.
McCaslan expressed though it’s his second year at the Squeals competition, it felt good to win, but also be a part of an exciting experience.
“It’s nice to see more people come into the local scene here and it keeps growing,” McCaslan said.
McCaslan said his strategy going in was simple and sees himself participating next year.
“You’ve just got to put everything you can in and hope the judges like what you give,” he remarked.
Mack Walker, of Charlotte, took home the “Best Ribs” award with a perfect score of 75 and represented Plowboyz Barbecue.
Walker said going into the rib part of the competition caught him by surprise that his team received a perfect score from the judges.
“I was surprised. I didn’t think we had a good cook today, but I was surprised,” Walker said. “It’s my team. It’s right here.”
He described his rib preparation as a mix of practice and luck as well as the experience of three previous competitions, and said he liked cooking the ribs and is planning to return next year.
Chris Ackerman, 31, of Plainfield representing Dead End BBQ, along with his brother Craig, took home the “Reserve Grand Champion” award.
Ackerman revealed he had no idea he would take second place overall, but in the long run enjoyed the experience of not only cooking with his brother but seeing the camaraderie of other teams as well.
“Our goal is to come out and have fun and just turn out some great barbecue,” Ackerman said. “We were using this competition as a trial run for the competition we have next weekend in Peoria, so we’re just trying to work on some different techniques and different flavors and we came home with reserve grand champion.”
He stated the flavor profile was one of the best he and his brother turned out that helped them take home Reserve Grand Champion, despite it only being their first year in the competition.
“We heard about Squeals and Wheels the second year they were in downtown Herscher. We haven’t been able to make it due to scheduling, but this year, we were happy to be able to make it.”
Terry Landgraf, 44, of Manteno, represented Gym Class Smokers and took home both “Best Pork” and “Grand Champion” awards.
Landgraf came not expecting to win, but to have fun and learn from last year’s competition.
“I came more for fun. I took the sheets they gave me and worked on stuff for the past year and it paid off,” Landgraf said.
Landgraf continued he plied his craft and technique along with the sauce, and everything came together for him and his team. He said the chicken was his favorite to cook as he improved upon it from last year’s competition.