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Rain doesn't deter grillers, chicken lovers at festival
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Danny Wahl checks the smoker Saturday while Justin Kemp looks on at the Queen Capital Group booth at the Spring Chicken Festival at Roosevelt Square in downtown Gainesville. The chicken was smoked for a couple hours, then finished on the grill. - photo by Tom Reed

It may have been a soggy day, but the chicken was just right.

Threatening morning skies and an afternoon downpour threw a damper on attendance for the sixth annual Gainesville Spring Chicken Festival, but for those who came to cook, they wouldn't let a little rain — or a lot —  keep them from grilling.

"We loaded up and got here in the rain, we can cook in the rain," said Philip Ridge, who with wife Priscilla left from their home early Saturday amid thunder and lightning.

"All you need is a piece of meat and a fire," his wife added.

There were 32 professional and amateur cooking teams signed up for Saturday's judged competition, but a few backed out because of the weather.

"A couple of teams came in (early Saturday), saw how bad it was raining and turned around and left," said Bear Sloan, owner of Lazy Bear's Barbecue in Oakwood. "It was their first time doing it, and they just weren't set up to cook in the rain."

Most teams were ready for the rain or shine event, bringing canopies, rain gear and backup plans if severe weather hit.

"We're prepared to cook, to serve and to be able to get out if the weather gets too bad," said Bobby McClain, co-owner of A.J.'s.

McClain was preparing chicken Alfredo, whisky batter fried chicken and iron skillet chicken.

"This is a great thing, to be able to come out and support the poultry capital of the world," McClain said.

Money raised from the event went to Keep Hall Beautiful's tree replacement and environmental education programs.

This year, poultry producers Mar-Jac, Fieldale and Columbia Farms donated 4,300 pounds of chicken, Keep Hall Beautiful Executive Director Cindy Reed said. Last year's attendance, with good weather, was about 1,200 people. Fewer people were expected this year because of forecasts for severe weather.

Those who did brave the rains were treated to smoky aromas and a wide variety of samples, from mojo marinade chicken with a cranberry pomegranate glaze at the Scott's on the Square booth to the Ridge's barbecued Caribbean jerk chicken and chicken and dumplings.

Under the Gainesville Fire Department tent, the reigning overall champs were grilling bacon-wrapped chicken breasts and cooking up their "controlled burn" wings.

"They're not too hot," Deputy Fire Chief Jerome Yarbrough said. "The taste just mellows out."

Most of the firefighters cooking for Gainesville were from the "C" shift, and all like to cook.

"For these guys, it's something they do every day, and this gives them a chance to get out in the community and let them see their talents," Yarbrough said. "We don't only fight fires; we can cook. They take pride in it."

Bear Sloan was prepared to cook as much as 400 pounds of chicken, including 200 pounds for starters. Sloan, who competes in 10 to 15 cook-offs across the state each year, said Gainesville's chicken festival has some of the best judging around.

Judges are sequestered and the food is brought to them, identified only by number, Sloan said.

"They base it on what you cook, not who you are," said Sloan, a previous winner.

Most cooks were too intent on bragging rights to let rain get in the way.

"The weather was a little better last year, but it's still fun," Philip Ridge said. "Particularly when you win."

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