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BBQ challenge a smoking success
Estimated 700 attend first annual Chamber BBQ, music festival
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Members of the Clovis based Off the Hook barbecue team took the grand champion honor at Saturdays first annual Smoke on the River event at the Tuolumne River Lodge in Ceres. - photo by Contributed by Don Cool

The Ceres Chamber of Commerce hosted its successful first annual "Smoke on the River" - a barbecue challenge and music festival - at the Tuolumne River Lodge on Saturday.

The event, held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., drew an estimated 600 to 800 persons on the oak-shaded southern bank of the Tuolumne River.

"It turned out to be a great family event," said Renee Ledbetter, president of the Ceres Chamber of Commerce and the originator of the event.

Those who attended - admission cost $10 in pre-sale and $20 at the gate - received two free barbecue samples and could buy sample tickets for dollar each. They also were allowed to redeem tokens for samples and the barbecuer who received the most tokens by the end of the day won the "People's Choice Award." That honor went to Beer Belly BBQ team of Modesto.

The overall winner of the BBQ challenge with their tasty barbecued meat was the Off the Hook team from Clovis. They were also first-place winners in both chicken and ribs. Second-place winner of chicken was Beer Belly BBQ and third place was Smokey River BBQ of Modesto. Second-place ribs went to Hero BBQ of Modesto and third-place ribs was captured by Howlin' BBQ of Azusa.

Reserve Grand Champion barbecuer was Beer Belly BBQ.

Barbecue teams from all over California also included Pit Bull BBQ, Smok'n T's BBQ, Bone Two Que, and J&J BBQ.

"This thing is a big deal to barbecuers," said Ledbetter. "It is a very serious hobby and they like to be recognized for their work."

The barbecued meats were judged by five judges with the California Barbecue Association and included Butch and Karla Richardson, Kay Spencer, Matt Bergen, Craig Yeszin, Paul Ackerman, Richard Hill and Ceres City Councilwoman Linda Ryno.

A number of contestants set up their barbecue rigs the night before and got right to work with marinades at 6 a.m. after the meats were handed out.

Ledbetter said meat samples were depleted by 2:30 p.m. "so next year we know to order more meat." She said the Chamber intends to make next year's event a CBA sanctioned event and a qualifying event for the organization's state championship.

Ledbetter came up with the idea for the event as she prepared to become Chamber president and groups suggested that Ceres offer more community events. Ledbetter and husband Steve started attending barbecue competitions to see how they were set up. Ceres Chamber board member John Garcia was the lead manager for the event and spurred a concerted effort between the Ceres Chamber and the Tuolumne River Lodge boards of directors.

Ledbetter said the Chamber wanted to team up with the lodge as a way of helping draw community attention to the lodge and helping to raise funds for the $40,000 pool renovation by splitting the proceeds in half.

"It's a hidden gem. It's just been forgotten. We wanted the event to recognize the lodge for its beauty and all the venues that it offers. It has an indoor venue and an outdoor venue. There is an outdoor kitchen area and a tea garden outside. There are a lot of different aspects of the lodge that are not being fully utlitized."

Besides barbecue smoke, filling the air were the sounds of music played by the Patty Castillo-Davis Band, Black Rose Band, and Remedy.

Those who attended had a chance to win prizes that included T-shirts, gift baskets, gift certificates, a Weber BBQ Grill & tools, Black Oak Casino overnight stay and slot play, tickets to Santa Cruz Beach & Boardwalk and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and tickets to Keith Urban and the Zac Brown Band concerts.

Ledbetter said the plan is to add more children's activities next year.