NEWPORT — Winning last year’s Newport Pig Cooking Contest was hard enough. Defending that top spot may be even harder.
“It’s hard and you know everyone out there is capable of winning,” said Chris Garner, the 2013 winner of the event.
Garner is returning to the Newport Town Park this weekend to fire up the grill as his team and nearly 80 others compete in the largest whole-hog cooking contest in the United States.
Winners of the Newport Pig Cooking take home a trophy and small check but mostly, Garner said, it’s bragging rights to win the big event that’s grown into a top barbecue cook-off as well as a major community event in his hometown.
“We won the state championship in 2007, but winning at home really means a lot,” Garner said.
This marks the 36th year of the pig cooking contest, and while the cook-off is the heart of the event, a band of volunteers continues to turn the park off Howard Boulevard into family-friendly weekend of food, live music, arts and crafts vendors, rides and children’s activities.
“We’ve tried to keep it very family-oriented,” said President Jim Bristle.
Opening ceremonies are at 6 p.m. Friday, with rides and crafts opening at 6:30 p.m. and a performance by the Fantastic Shakers from 7 to 10 p.m.
The meeting of chief cooks is at 7 p.m. and the pigs are delivered to each team after the meeting. Cooking continues throughout the night, and the highlight of the cook-off is the judging Saturday morning. Entertainment continues throughout the day Saturday.
Once the judging is complete, the barbecue is chopped and readied to be served to the public.
Serving lines open at 11 a.m. and barbecue plates sell for $7.
More than 6,000 plates were sold last year, and all proceeds from the event go back into the community through grants to various nonprofit organizations.
“All the money stays in our community, and it means a lot to be a part of that,” Garner said.
To date, the Newport Pig Cooking has raised more than $800,000 for community groups.
This year’s event is dedicated to long-time mayor Derryl Garner, who is one of the founders of the event. He retired from his mayoral duties last year after 36 years of service with the town.
“He’s been there all 36 years of the pig cooking,” Bristle said.
After a long, cold winter, Bristle said they are looking forward to celebrating spring.
Newport resident Charlie Meeks has been cooking in the event since around 1989 and he and other family members will be returning again this year.
He won in 2007 and took second in 2013. He’s out for first this year but knows it could be any of them. No matter how tasty the meat or crispy the skin, there’s one ingredient out of their hands.
“You got to have a little luck,” Meeks said.
For more information, go online to newportpigcooking.com.
Jannette Pippin is a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News.