Picking the Duncans out of a crowd of barbecue aficionados is easy; they’re the ones in pink. Jennifer’s outdoor kitchen is decked out in the girly hue, and Tom wears it.
“I had a bet that if I lost to Jennifer in an event, I would have to wear pink until I beat her,” says Tom Duncan Jr. “It’s gotten to the point where everywhere we go, pink stuff just starts showing up, from pink feather boas to pink underwear to a dozen pink-frosted donuts — people just bringing us these things. It’s gotten pretty bad.”
The Gilbert husband and wife will compete against one another — and 88 other teams — Saturday in the 23rd annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg, Tenn. The event features seven categories: pork ribs, pork shoulder/butts, beef brisket, chicken, cook’s choice, dessert and Jack Daniel’s sauce. Up for grabs is the coveted title of Grand Champion and a share of more than $30,000 in cash and prizes.
The couple, married 14 years, run Whiskey Ranch BBQ, a mobile catering business in Gilbert. But about 15 times per year they compete locally and across the nation in ’cue contests, where Tom leads the Whiskey Ranch BBQ Team and Jennifer is pit master of Smoked to the Bone.
“We have totally different flavor profiles. Jennifer used to tell me ‘Why don’t you try this?’ or ‘Why don’t you do it that way?’ So I made her a logo and a team name and put it up on the side of the rig and said, ‘You know how to do it; here’s your new team.’ We got her outfitted, and we’ve been having fun ever since,” says Tom.
Jennifer, who grew up with more potlucks than barbecues, says she never imagined she’d be wrapped up in the world of competitive barbecue, much less share it as a family passion with her husband and two children, ages 9 and 11.
But when Tom got interested in barbecue, first using a small water smoker, what was supposed to be a little catering business for Jennifer turned into the couple’s full-time livelihood.
At the competition this weekend, their teams will set up near each other, but “there is a definite line between the two camps, and it is not to be crossed,” jokes Jennifer.
Their meats will be inspected by judges, and then they’ll get to work, trimming the meat, seasoning and injecting it with flavor, and smoking it. Pressure will build at turn-in time, as the teams hurry to plate seven back-to-back courses.
“Tommy is much more fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants; he is very innovative. He likes to try new stuff all the time, and I like to stick to what I know or refine it a little bit. I have a time schedule before each contest; he works out of his head,” says Jennifer.
With their winnings, the couple supports charities close to their hearts. Partial proceeds and/or food go to Boys & Girls Club, police Explorer programs, Turnbow Foundation and fallen officers charities at home and in the cities they visit. Jennifer also supports two Komen Race for the Cure teams.
Win or lose at “The Jack,” Tom says they’re already on top of the world — even if he has to keep wearing pink for the time being.
“We’ve won just being able to qualify. It shows how you’ve done, that you’ve excelled in your field and are good enough to go up against the biggest and the baddest in the country. This is our release, this is our fun.”
The Duncans will barbecue again Oct. 28-29 at the Rocktober BBQ Boo Bash Throwdown at Rock Springs Cafe, just off Interstate 17 in Black Canyon City. They’ll host their own Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned cookoff Dec. 9-11 at Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Mesa.
“Balance is always hard, but if you have love and support, it is much easier to schedule,” says Jennifer. “(Our) biggest challenge is missing the kids! We are blessed enough to have both sets of grandparents that live in town and help us with our kids. If the kids can go with us, then they do. Keeping things successful has been not easy but (it hasn’t been) hard either. I think it is because we love what we do that it is just a matter of planning to be able to do what you love.”
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