Hot off the grill

Jon Bigalk, co-owner of Willingham's World Champion BBQ of Nashville, TN, prepares to remove 100 slabs of freshly-smoked ribs from the "Willingham's Wham Turbo Cooker," invented by his uncle, John Willingham, in 1981. "My uncle is a great man, and he also invented the Wham seasoning, the Memphis dry rub that makes us so unique from everybody else," Jon said. (Photo by David Lias)

Hey, look at this, said the man standing behind the large vendor booth located at the corner of Main and Market streets in downtown Vermillion Saturday night.

He opened the door to what appeared to be a stainless steel cabinet. Hanging inside the cabinet were 100 slabs of freshly smoked pork ribs ready to be grilled.

Jon Bigalk, the owner of Willinghams World Championship BBQ of Memphis, TN, had to move quickly. Saturday night, in the closing hours of the seventh annual Ribs, Rods n Roll event in Vermillion, Main Street and Market Street were filled with people.

Many of them were hungry, waiting in line at his booth to order up some barbecue.

Jon, however, first had to talk for a moment about his family, and about the unique cabinet holding all of those ribs.

This was invented by John Willingham, he said. Mr. Willingham is my uncle. The ribs that Im showing you here are in his Willinghams Wham Turbo Cooker that he invented and patented in 1981. This is the very first patented barbecue cooker in the world.

ABOVE RIGHT: Stewart Jennings, a crew member of Willingham's World Champion BBQ of Nashville, TN, finishes up cooking a batch of ribs for lines of hungry customers in downtown Vermillion Saturday during the annual Ribs, Rods & Rock 'n Roll event. (Photo by David Lias)

Willinghams invention is so unique that the original one that was built 20 years ago is now in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.

Hell be 80 years old in May, Jon said, speaking fondly of his uncle, part of an earlier generation that began Willinghams World Championship BBQ. Hes just a great man; and also invented, along with my Aunt Marjorie, the Wham Seasoning. Thats the Memphis dry rub that makes us so unique from everyone else.

The ribs and other items prepared by Jon and his crew at last weekends Ribs, Rods n Roll had a unique quality that was obviously popular among hungry visitors to downtown Vermillion Saturday. They didnt mind standing in line to wait for a serving hot off the grill.

The flavors brought to the meat by the Wham Seasoning and the slow smoking process were savory and unlike typical examples of barbecue in the Midwest.

I teach a lot of barbecue classes, having learned a lot from my uncle, and basically, the reason you have a lot of different flavor profiles throughout the barbecue belt in the country goes back 200 years ago to what grew in the fields, Jon said, and what types of trees they cut down.

If you go out to North Carolina, youre going to taste a little vinegar, and youre going to taste a sweeter smoke from the apple, he said. If you go down into South Carolina, theres a mustard-based sauce. If you go to Kansas City, youre going to taste more of a sweet sauce, because way back, the reason they were driving cattle into Kansas City to hop on those trains was because there was a plethora of sorghum in the fields. Sorghum is the base ingredient for molasses. Theres a reason for everything.

Jon grew up in Memphis, and said barbecue is in his blood, as he surrounded by great cooks and great food.

I grew up with my uncles cooking and my moms a great cook, he said.

Lead singer Kory Van Sickle connects with the audience Saturday night as the performance by Sioux Falls-based band Kory and the Fireflies closed out another successful two-day Ribs, Rods & Rock 'n Roll festival in Vermillion. Ribs, Rods & Rock n Roll is a Kansas City BBQ Society (KCBS)-sanctioned event that has been held annually in the community for seven years. (Photo by David Lias)

Ribs, Rods and Rock n Roll kicked off Friday, Sept. 9 in downtown Vermillion with live music, food and beer. Also getting the festivities off to a grand start Friday at 5 p.m. were performances by the Old Funk Riot Band, followed by music by the Autumn Road Band and Main Avenue Warehouse, an eight-piece band with horns.

Saturdays activities began with the Eagle Rider Charity Poker Run breakfast at 9:30 a.m.

Judging of the South Dakota BBQ championship will be held from noon to 2 p.m., and the Dakota Classic Cruisers Car and Cycle Show and Shine was held in downtown Vermillion from noon to 4 p.m.

The 2011 Ribs, Rods & Rock n Roll concluded Saturday night with a concert performance by Kory and the Fireflies.

Jon began learning more and more about what it takes to be successful in the barbecue business when he began helping his uncle operate Willinghams World Championship BBQ in 1992.

Hes one of five men who are living today that are inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame, Jon said.

He turned his attention, once again, to the Wham Turbo Cooker, as he still had many hungry people to feed.

I have 100 slabs of pork ribs in here, and those were cooked with hickory wood, Jon said. The first step was to put on the Wham Seasoning, our dry rub, on the fresh meat, and we let that sit, and then we rubbed it into the meat and let it marinate overnight. That flavorized and tenderized the meat.

He them put the slabs of ribs into the turbo cooker at about 2 p.m. Saturday. And its almost 9 p.m., so theyre ready to hit the grill.

He was happy to see people waiting, even as late as 9 p.m., to sample some Willinghams barbecue.

Our mission is to share some really great barbecue with as many people as we can, Jon said. We travel the country. I just came 1,900 miles from Reno, NV last weekend, and tomorrow Im heading to Tulsa.

Willinghams also abides by a unique calling that is just as and perhaps even more important than the corporate one he cited above.

Our personal mission is to bring a little joy and fellowship into peoples lives, Jon said. Barbecue is just the mechanism.

Willinghams didnt make it to last years Ribs, Rods and Rock n Roll after participating two years ago.

Were glad to be back. We love Vermillion. The people here are just great, Jon said.

As he talked, a live band played nearby under the Hy-Vee Entertainment Tent. The night was pleasantly warm and still, with stars and a bright moon shining down on streets filled with people enjoying the entertainment, the food and each others company.

What a beautiful evening in South Dakota, Jon said. You couldnt ask for anything better. Theres great music and a lot of fun people.

The stars are aligned tonight, he said. Were so glad to be here.

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