Sometimes barbecue is so smoky good it just begs to be eaten by hand.
At Saturday's Brenau Barbecue Championship, a Ninja Pig BBQ server happily obliged one customer who didn't need a plate.
"I was trying to be green," said Gainesville's Jody Kose, who had enjoyed literally a handful of tasty barbecue. "Just don't shake my hand!"
Kose wasn't the only taster to take his barbecue hand to mouth.
"Most of them have had to put it in their hands, 'cause we ran out of plates," chief cook Gary Moore said.
Thousands attended the third annual event near the school's amphitheater in downtown Gainesville.
Families and friends walked along the parking lot next to the amphitheater where guitar music played. There was plenty to do, like visit the nearly 30 vendors or participate in kids activities.
The Marshall family of Gainesville did a little bit of everything, including making bracelets and planting flowers.
"We've had a great time jumping in the kids area," Heather Marshall said.
But their Saturday afternoon wasn't complete until mom and dad had tried some barbecue. They stopped at Smoke Shack BBQ and found a sweet and vinegar-flavored pork, which both parents enjoyed.
Ace Marshall said an event like this gives them the opportunity to try different kinds of sauce.
"Everyone brings their homemade version here, so you get to taste a lot of varieties you don't get in the store," Marshall said.
There was more to the event than idle tasting, as cookers hoped to take home prizes for the best barbecue. The competition included 12 cookers in the professional category, and 27 in the "backyard braggarts" division.
The backyard competitors weren't cooking next to the pros, but they're hardly amateurs. Ninja Pig BBQ, based in Gainesville, won the grand champion title for its barbecue chicken at the Spring Chicken Festival earlier this month.
Both divisions are judged, with the backyard cookers competing in the Boston butt and/or ribs category, and the pro cookers competing in ribs, shoulder and/or whole hog.
More than 40 judges were selected. A blind taste test was used to determine the winners of the backyard division categories, while the top scorers in the pro cookers categories moved onto a final round where new judges tasted their barbecue.
Scores are not taken lightly. Dana Miller, assistant to the judges, said they had a tough job.
"This is a really difficult process because they've got some of the finest teams in the Southeast," Miller said.
Judge Mike Holden said he looked for barbecue that preserved the taste of the pork smoked over wood, with sauces that complimented the meat rather than attempt to hide errors in cooking.
"We're looking for the down-home type flavor of pork enhanced by sauces and other injections," he said.
At Yazoo's Delta Q's tent, Melissa Cookston prepared her table for a fine-dining experience as she counted down the minutes until the judges appeared. The Mississippi-based team was a finalist in every category and swept the competition, winning all three.
"Anytime you can go final in all three, you've had a good day," Cookston said.
Yazoo's Delta Q won in the rib and whole hog categories last year, and went on to become the circuit champion at the Memphis in May national competition.
"It's just a well-rounded and well balanced product we are able to produce," Cookston said.
In the backyard braggarts division, Lazy Bear BBQ placed first in shoulder, while Nada Chance won in the rib category.
Along with offering competitors a chance to hone their skills, the cook-off is a scholarship fundraiser for local students who attend Brenau.
Event director Jim Barco, senior vice president of institutional development at the college, said there's more to the event than raising money.
"It's equally important that we're able to serve as a gathering point for the community," Barco said.
Kose's wife, Lori, didn't eat her barbecue by hand, but nevertheless enjoyed the event.
"I love that they're doing this in Gainesville, because it's a nice kind of smalltown community thing to do," she said.