In the dark and cold November evening, the drum of a black steel pit sandwiched between two campus buildings was smoking hot. 

Ercilia Martinez, a Memorial High School senior, was keeping a close eye on the temperature gauge above two slabs of marinated and seasoned pork ribs. 

Any slight drop in temperature could alter the flavor of the ribs, and the fire needed to stay hot for the next round of meats already prepped for the smoker. 

When Martinez momentarily turned her attention from the ribs to a phone call, another student took her post. Moments later, “I got a full-ride scholarship to Washburn University!” Martinez told her friends and instructors.

Classmate Penelope Medellin, who had been focused on a cast-iron Dutch oven nestled in charcoal that held Ashly Lopez’s signature choco-flan dessert, gasped and leaped to wrap Martinez in a congratulatory hug. 

The announcement during the hours-long practice was an early victory for the team as it prepared for the National High School Barbecue Association and League’s super-qualifier regional competition, held Dec. 9 at the Art Institute of San Antonio. 

That day, Martinez, Medellin and Lopez and other students on the Bluebonnet Grillers team and the Las Parilladas teams from Memorial faced off against the two Madison High School teams — Cowboy Smokers and Smokey and the Bandits — and several others from across the state for a chance to compete for the state title in May. 

They’re also competing for thousands in college scholarship dollars, coveted flame-printed trophies — and bragging rights. 

The students agreed that the barbecue competitions have taught them how to work together with a team and the skills required to prep and cook — under the pressure of time limits and the elements — using live fire and smoke. 

“I didn’t realize how technical and how precise it actually has to be until actually practicing and getting the critiques back,” said Hannah McMullan, a junior whose mother, Janell, is a teacher at Madison and the faculty sponsor of the team. 

The Cowboy Smokers, made up of students who attend the school’s Agriscience Magnet Program, were named 2022 national BBQ champions following a contest last May. The entire group won scholarships from Sullivan University in Kentucky.

Last week, the Smokey and The Bandits took the top prize: grand champion overall. The Cowboy Smokers won sixth place overall and grand champion overall for their pork ribs and Dutch oven dessert.

The Memorial Bluebonnet Grillers students, who are in just their second year of competing, had won in the hamburger category during the regionals competition with their signature pink concha burger with jalapeños. That submission won them a trip to nationals. 

Friday’s competition netted Memorial’s Las Parilladas eighth place overall, fourth place for pork chops and third place in the dessert category. The Bluebonnet Grillers won fourth place in desserts.

From left: Memorial High School BBQ Team instructor Megan Tapia, Ashly Lopez, Leslie Hernandez, Jacob Perez, and team instructor Christopher Hancock pose with their certificates at the end of the National High School Barbecue Association and League’s super-qualifier regional competition, which was held Dec. 9 at the Art Institute of San Antonio. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Because the categories — which include different cuts of meat, desserts and side dishes like beans or chili — change with each competition, burgers weren’t on the contest menu last Friday. 

The National High School Barbecue Association is in its eighth year, having gotten its start at Burnet High School northwest of Austin in 2014 and expanding to about 300 high school teams in six states so far. 

The program is an extracurricular activity and is often part of a school’s culinary arts department or vocational and agriculture programs like Future Farmers of America.

Michael Erickson, the president and founder of the National High School Barbecue Association, is a big fan of the pink concha burger. 

“It started as just a simple, fun thing to get kids engaged,” said Erickson, who also teaches culinary arts at Burnet. “The industry is really supportive because they want to see us teach the next generation of Texans to barbecue and how to grill and how to tailgate.”

Samantha Sanchez, 17 (left) and Eliel Arturo Castillo, 15 cut the fat off of skirt steak for fajita tacos inside of the Culinary Arts Kitchen at Memorial High School Tuesday.
Samantha Sanchez, left, and Eliel Arturo Castillo cut the fat off of skirt steak for fajita tacos inside of the Culinary Arts Kitchen at Memorial High School. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

San Antonio-based Bolner’s Fiesta Products is a sponsor of the league.

It also brings families together, especially “a lot of male role models that traditionally wouldn’t engage with high school kids, because the moms are usually doing that,” he said. “It’s getting dads and uncles and grandfathers back on high school campuses to work with kids.”

Memorial team leader Medellin said she didn’t know anything about barbecue when instructor Megan Tapia invited her to join the team, which is also led by instructor Christopher Hancock. She decided to give it a try.

“I love cooking, I love being outside,” she said. “I’ve helped my dad sometimes when he would smoke.” Medellin’s father lends the team his grill and helps out during competitions, which can be grueling and stressful. 

Even team practices can go for hours at a time, and that’s not counting the time the students put in on their own.

It’s tiring work, Medellin said, “but I love it. I love doing it.”

From left: Ashly Lopez, 16 spreads caramel on a freshly made chocolate flan cake they made using a modified recipe from Penelope Medellin’s (right) mom.
From left: Memorial High School student Ashly Lopez spreads caramel on a freshly made choco-flan dessert as teammate Penelope Medellin stands by. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Madison senior Lauren Williams grew up helping her father grill — he called her his “little barbecue helper.” The first year, she didn’t make the team, which was known as the Barbecuties. Tryouts are intense, even “cutthroat,” she said, but after making the team on her second try, she considers her teammates like family.

Teammate Autumn Juettemeyer, also a senior, did not have any barbecue experience and also wasn’t a fan of meat cooked on the grill. But she wanted to be part of the team. “Once I set my mind to something, I kind of get it done,” she said.

So when she decided to try out, she started practicing day and night — actually waking at 3 a.m. on occasion to fire up the grill. Juettemeyer entered every category, though only one was required, and made the team — which is now made up of fans of her apple pecan caramel pie.

Memorial’s Lopez is also known for her desserts made on the grill, as well as practicing until she gets the ingredients, flavor and cook time exactly right. 

She has been working nonstop to perfect her choco-flan, a custard and chocolate cake dessert. “It’s part of my culture and I wanted to share it,” Lopez said.

Benton Ward, a Madison senior, was in charge of his team’s brisket category and won ninth place overall at the world contest. He also helps out the team by loading firewood into the bed of his pickup and hauling it to the pits. 

“These are the best of the best,” he said, noting that recipes and tastes vary by region in the country, making the competition even tougher. “I kind of just do a traditional South Texas brisket with a lot of black pepper, a lot of salt.”

Benton Ward is a senior at Madison High School.
Benton Ward is a senior at Madison High School. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Beef fajitas are on the category list this year, and the Madison team, with Williams leading on the skirt steak tacos, saw that as an advantage over teams from schools outside South Texas. 

The association that runs the contests has established a competition rulebook, with 67 pages of tips and guidelines, including what’s allowed and not allowed when their items go before judges: “No garnish on meat!” 

Participants also build their own fires and keep them going. 

“The chefs are just there to make sure we don’t get hurt or anything,” Medellin said of her instructors. “They’re giving us pointers. But everything we do, we do by ourselves.”

Christopher Hancock, a Memorial team instructor, said even though the kids compete, the program is different from a competitive high school sports or academic event.

“It’s a practical, hands-on life skill,” said Hancock, adding the students could apply their new skills to culinary careers, for example opening a food truck, or any number of related jobs.

High school barbecue, he said, “is giving these kids an opportunity to shine.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.