Ann Criswell and the birth of rodeo cook-off
For many Houstonians, the World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (aka cook-off) has been part of our early spring calendars for as long as we can remember.
The rodeo and livestock show debuted in 1932, but the first cook-off occurred in 1974. The beginnings were humble; only 17 teams participated. Fortunately, the judging team provided some much-needed star-power for the inaugural event. In addition to the obligatory local celebrities, a real-deal Hollywood star, Ben Johnson, was a judge. A veteran of many classic Western movies, Johnson had recently won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his part in the film “The Last Picture Show.”
Ann Criswell, the Houston Chronicle’s food editor from 1966 to 2000, also evaluated the smoked meat offerings.
Criswell, who died Dec. 15, 2020 at age 87, would become one of the most important promoters of rodeo cook-off in those early years, contributing to the growth and prominence of what would eventually become one of Houston’s most important social and culinary events.
Criswell was no stranger to barbecue. One of her first big features in 1966 was a “Cook-out Recipe Contest” encouraging backyard cooks to come up with creative grilling recipes, which were all the rage at the time. In a later remembrance, she described how she and husband Jim had to cook dozens of recipes to find a winner.
“We cooked for two days, one day for 14 hours testing the recipes. The second day we hated each other,” said Criswell. “We ate barbecue for three weeks.”
The winner of the recipe contest was identified only as “Mrs. John Campbell” who submitted what may be one of the most unique barbecue dishes then or ever: stuffed pork spareribs. A rack of spareribs is turned upside-down and Thanksgiving-style stuffing packed along the length of the rack. The second rack is placed on top, the whole thing is tied together, and then grilled.
The offerings at that first rodeo cook-off were more recognizable, primarily chicken and brisket.
In a 1974 Houston Chronicle feature describing the event, Criswell’s judging technique was in character with her reputation as a perfectionist when it came to ingredients and recipe testing.
“Ms. Criswell made little notes on each sample — ‘oily and fatty,’ or ‘spicier and smokier,’ or ‘tough’ or ‘no good’ or ‘needs seasoning.’”
Johnson wasn’t quite as exacting.
“I haven’t found any that’s no good,” he said after the 12th sample. “But how the hell do you judge a contest like this, anyway?”
The story also described how some of Houston’s legendary pitmasters participated: Ed Dozier of Dozier’s BBQ in Fulshear competed and John P. Davis of Shepherd Drive Barbecue (which would eventually become Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Cue) attended, passing out cards that proclaimed “World’s Greatest Barbecue Man.”
Today, if you scan the memorabilia-covered walls of Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Cue, you will find a copy of that card.
The eventual winner of the competition was Jim Brent, co-owner of Jim & Jerry’s Barbecue in Pasadena, a long-gone barbecue joint lost to history.
A year later there wasn’t any coverage of the second event, though for the third edition in 1976 Criswell did a lavish feature documenting the previous year’s contest and encouraging Houstonians to “Follow Smoke Signals to the Contest,” as it was titled. Sixty teams competed. It included detailed descriptions of some of the team’s cooking techniques as well as several barbecue sauce recipes from the participants.
Criswell certainly set the tone for the seriousness of judging that exists today.
Barbecue competitions then as now are primarily the domain of male cooks, and in a final sharp retort for which she became known in her writing, she concluded, “The barbecue was alright, considering that men had cooked it.”