PAXTON — With not having competed in a barbecue cookoff in two years, brothers Joe and Tim Higgins didn’t think they would be named the winners of the seventh annual Paxton Swine ‘N Dine BBQ Contest on Saturday.
The two Gibson City men had done well in past editions of the contest in downtown Paxton, having claimed reserve champion honors in 2015 and third overall in 2014.
But after missing last year’s contest so they could be able to attend a wedding that same weekend, they had not done any competitions since placing 11th out of 21 teams in the 2016 Swine ‘N Dine.
With so much time away from the game, they weren’t sure what to expect this time — but being named grand champion seemed unlikely, they said.
It wasn’t just their lack of participation in barbecue contests in the recent past, either, that had them less than confident. They had also changed their rubs "drastically" for both their ribs and chicken — the contest’s two categories — and didn’t use their customary "cupcake chicken" recipe this time around.
But it all worked out.
Higgins Brothers Grill — which not only comprises Joe, 40, and Tim, 39, but also their father, Dennis, 67 — won their first barbecue contest ever on Saturday by eclipsing 11 other teams competing in chicken and ribs. They did so by placing first in ribs with a score of 273.7144 using the Kansas City Barbecue Society’s points structure and placing second in chicken with a score of 133.1428.
Reserve champ honors went to DB BBQ — headed by Fairbury resident Keith Schladenhauffen — which took first in chicken and third in ribs.
"It’s just amazing," Joe Higgins said. "You never know. Any day could turn out any way."
The key to their success?
"It’s a mix between the judges and the weather and how your grills are performing," Joe Higgins said. "All the little pieces just have got to come together."
The Higgins brothers used a pair of Weber Smokey Mountain bullet-shaped smokers — which cost about $600 brand new — to cook their contest entries.
Tim Higgins said the rub they used this time was spicier and the sauce sweeter than in the past.
"It was kind of a Texas rub with a South Carolina barbecue sauce," Joe Higgins said.
While Tim and Joe Higgins did most of the cooking, their father — a retired Gibson City police chief and Ford County Emergency Management Agency coordinator — was the self-described "gopher" — doing anything needed that his sons asked.
"I go for stuff," Dennis Higgins said, "and I make sure they don’t get barbecue sauce all over the turn-in (presentation boxes) and clean them up."
With Saturday’s win, the Higgins brothers and their father plan to return for the 2019 cookoff to defend their title. Of course, that’s assuming no conflicts arise again, like weddings.
"We are definitely going to make this a priority on the calendar," Joe Higgins said.
The Higgins brothers have been competing in barbecue cookoffs for several years, but they have been grilling together for way longer. It all started when they did not like how their father kept burning the meat when he would grill out for the family.
"They watched me grill, and then they perfected it because I used to just burn it," Dennis Higgins said in 2015.
"He was just worried about it being done," Tim Higgins said.
"Mom was definitely the better cook," Joe Higgins said.