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A "SMOKESHOW": LaBelle hosting 12th annual Smoke Under the Oaks Rib Fest

Teams of pit-masters will battle “rib-to-rib” as Barron Park transforms into a barbecue haven
Posted at 7:26 PM, Jan 12, 2024

LABELLE, Fla. — In the heart of downtown LaBelle, the smokey aroma of fresh barbecue will fill the air for miles this Saturday at the 12th Annual Smoke Under the Oaks Rib Fest. It takes place at Barron Park, where teams of pit masters will go head-to-head, or rather “rib-to-rib”, in a competition for first-place.

The streets surrounding Barron Park are expected to be brimming with people enjoying some barbecue, and then voting for their favorite. James Hatch, a seasoned pit-master from R&J BBQ, arrived a day early to scope out his designated spot and plan his setup.

Hatch, part of the R&J BBQ duo in Labelle, says he and his uncle have been entering cook-offs for years. He reminisced about their success in previous competitions, stating, "Mike Greenwells Bat-a-Ball Park – they used to have a rib rodeo there, and the first year we entered that, we won it. We did it the second year and won it." Hoping to clinch a victory at Smoke Under the Oaks, he emphasizes the importance of the pre-cooking process, which begins the night before the event.

"At like six o'clock tonight, they'll give you your ribs. You can't start cooking tonight, but you can start prepping. You know, you can marinate your ribs; some people just do dry rubs," explains Hatch.

Then, at four in the morning on Saturday, Hatch says he’ll fire up his smoker at the park to begin the 'low and slow' cooking process until noon, when judging begins. He shares his signature strategy of leaving the smoker closed. "We say if you're lookin', you ain't cookin’,” said Hatch.

Alex DeStefano, President of the Labelle Downtown Revitalization Group, the organization coordinating the event, sheds light on the judging criteria. "The judges rate them based on five different categories like taste, appearance, and bite," says DeStefano. He adds that there's a 'People's Choice' element, allowing attendees to cast their votes for their favorite ribs.

“It’s very exciting to me because of the amount of people it’s drawing into the community. We have ton’s of local vendors that are getting exposure to people outside of the area,” said DeStefano.

While the teams of pit-masters surround the park, DeStefano says there will be a market set up under the oak trees in the middle. The event runs from 11AM to 4PM on Saturday, and DeStefano says the funds raised will go towards future Barron Park renovations.

"We just hope that everybody comes out with their families and enjoys this great barbecue," says Destafano.