Smokin’ On The Rio promotes competition, reaching youth active in agriculture
There are cookouts and then there’s Smokin’ On The Rio.
The Mercedes-based event, with its full name of Smokin’ On The Rio State Championship BBQ Cook-off, has become a yearly late February staple at the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show Grounds. It’s an event that started out with 12 teams in 2004, and its most recent edition, the 16th annual event, 250 teams competed in what has become the second-largest sanctioned cook-off in Texas.
“We have everybody from the backyard cookers to the professional cooking teams,’’ said Luis Saldana, the immediate past president of the Smokin’ On The Rio Board. “We have teams come here from all over the state. We’ve worked to create an equal playing field so that everyone can compete and have fun.’’
For all of the fun of competition and winning prizes, the event’s board of directors has kept their focus on the real reason Smokin’ was started 15 years ago. The event’s core mission is to raise money in supporting youth agricultural projects in the Valley, and to provide scholarships for graduating seniors. Saldana said proceeds from this year’s event reached over 300 students through scholarships and purchase of their projects that were presented at the Livestock Show.
Since its inception, Smokin’ has awarded over $1 million to over 1200 Valley youth who are active in agriculture through organizations like 4-H and FFA.
“We’re focused on youth in agriculture,’’ said Saldana, a Mercedes resident who works at the Texas A&M Agrilife Research & Extension Center in Weslaco. “It humbles us that we have so many sponsors who recognize what we’re doing is important and beneficial for the kids we reach.’’
The event over the years has gone beyond cooking to include live music and a bevy of vendors. Eight bands were featured in the 2019 edition, including Chris Marshall and Mariachi Azucenas. Smokin’ with its $10 admission and free parking has become a two-day event, opening on Friday evening and continuing all day Saturday with concerts, vendors, and of course, lots of cooking and good competition.
The competitions include everything from pan de campo to carne guisada to brisket, chicken, beans and chorizo. The event is sanctioned by the International Barbeque Cookers Association. Youths are welcome in the cook-offs, with competitions set up for 6-9 year-olds and 10-12 years old. For the winners, there’s $50,000 in cash and prizes.
“The teams are motivated for different reasons,’’ Saldana said of the over 200 teams that competed at this year’s event. “For some, it’s just bragging rights. Some are in the catering business and want to show how good their skills are and being able to say they were winners (at Smokin’).’’
Saldana is pleased that with the growth in sponsorships, with more teams and their registration fees, and adding vendors who also pay a fee to set up at the event, the sum total is more revenues to award more scholarships and pay for the projects youths submit at the Livestock Show. He also thanked the Development Corporation of Mercedes for its support of Smokin’ On The Rio, adding that it has been a key factor in the event’s growth.
“I like how we’ve added more community components,’’ Saldana said, pointing out that members of the general community are often used as judges for the cook-offs. “We want people to enjoy the event and recognize that it’s all about awarding the kids.’’
- Ricardo D. Cavazos