When Steve Sharp, volunteer for the 28th annual Holtville Rib Cook-Off, proclaims the extravaganza brings out the whole community it is no mere boast as an estimated crowd of nearly 12,000 swarmed Samaha Park on Jan. 26.
Sharp, “chief bottle washer” as he calls himself, noted the Holtville Athletic Club, the presenters, ordered 300 cases of St. Louis style pork ribs.
“I’ll bet their gone by 1 p.m.,” he said. “But our advertisement says, until the ribs are gone, not a set time. But some people get upset and say, ‘I came out and you were out of ribs.’”
Sharp’s warning had a ring of truth as long lines of visitors were getting the first batch before 10 a.m., the breakfast of champions. But the bigger picture of the superb chow down is all net proceeds are donated to support youth activities, athletic groups and education. What’s more, the majority of the 600 volunteers consist of youth organizations, educational groups and their leaders.
One early bird tearing into a rib was Angel Robles who arrived from San Diego (but born in El Centro). The ribs he polished off were pretty good but he was queued up at another booth already.
“I thought I’d get on line for Los Compadres because everyone is flocking this way, so it must be good,” he said. “It’s not only the rib itself but the sauce, and it has to have a smoked flavor, nice and tender.”
At the Los Compadres booth, Alfredo Figueroa, the lead curly fry cook, was getting his crew ready to prepare a favorite side dish.
“We meet just once a year and we come out with family, but it all goes to the kids (proceeds),” he said.
Next door was the City of Holtville booth. Frank Cornejo has worked for the city for 18 years and grilled ribs for 17, for which he also deserves a pension.
“Our secret, is (cook) slow and low,” he said.
His compatriot, Anthony Wells, called Cornejo an awesome griller, but Wells claims he himself just comes up with the recipe.
“Every year we tweak it a little,” he said. “This time we added a little extra turmeric. It makes heart healthy ribs. Maybe next year we’ll add a little coffee to keep you awake.”
Comfortably perched on a hay bale was Robyn Avila from El Centro, enjoying her third rib cook-off.
“This is delicious, sweet, spicy, very tasty and worth the trip out to Holtville,” she said working on a rib from Imperial County’s World’s Greatest Ribs booth.
Praising the homemade lemonade, provided by Humble Farmer Brewing Company, Angela Pantoja praised, “This lemonade is delicious; I want another when I’m done with this. And these ribs are just delicious, but I don’t know which ones I like the best.”
With a reputation for an even more intense rivalry than the rib booths were the pie makers, known to be totally serious. Brian Philips at the Dessert Booth helped serve cookies, cupcakes and cinnamon rolls too.
“We got it all, anything with sugar,” he said. “Our strawberry pie went out faster than we could set it up. It’s the red that attracted them like bees. They saw that red and hit it. But you know--it’s all low-cal, as long as you eat it outside, all part of a Paleo-diet.”
Wolfing down an ear of corn was an original Athletic Club member Ronnie Claybrook.
“This is really good corn--and the root beer,” said Claybrook. “All the ribs are excellent. It would be hard to get a bad rib.”
After the hearty fare, the serious business of awards honored the judge’s choice. For best ribs, Big Al’s took top prize of $1,000. Second was Imperial County Planning Department winning $500, while third, Merry Sunshine won $250. Best side dish was won by Los Compadres’ stuffed potato, $400, and I.C. Planning took second with coconut shrimp for $200 and third was I.C. Sheriff’s Office for beans diablo, $100.
Of course, there’s always room for dessert. Best pie went to Kristen Sharp-Smail with strawberry pie winning $100, second was Ellen Underwood for Swiss apple pear custard for $50 while third was Leni Heuberger for a pear custard and $25. Best booth went to AM Desert Storm Concrete for $200, second, I.C. Planning, $100 and third, city of Holtville, $50.
The best performance was won by Smart N Final; the Hall of Flame award was won by Rusty Pain; the Pinnacle award went to Los Compadres; and Special Recognition honored La Brucherie Irrigation.