Mike Cotter and Mike Brooks have been through the fire.
After all, the duo, who call themselves Top Hand Cookers, have been a fixture at the Madisonville Sidewalk Cattlemen’s Association annual Barbecue Cook-off since its first one 35 years ago.
Of all the attractions that the annual cook-off has, the two things keeping these men coming back are competition, of course, but mostly community, since the event has its roots in fundraising for scholarships.
“We’re all a family, and if we can help you, we will,” said Mike Cotter.
Clark Osborne, who makes the trophies for the annual event, said that the team has been a staunch supporter of the MSCA and Madisonville from the beginning.
Aside from their attendance, Top Hand has been responsible for creating what has become the annual highlight of the cook-off. Prior to the awards ceremony, there is an auction, and the last — and best — item sold is a hand-crafted wagon which the team builds by hand.
This year, the wagon brought in $7,745 at the action, after being sold and donated back five times.
Osborne said that at one time, all the banks in town had cooking areas, and anyone walking around would be greeted warmly; there even used to be a hospitality area, and people knew that if they paid a gate fee, they would get a plate of food.
Judging also was different. Now, the MSCA uses rules provided by the Lone Star Barbecue Society, but before, it was just people tasting food.
“There was one feller who was drunker’n Cooter Brown, and we asked him if he was going to enter chicken,” Cotter related. “He said if I need to, he will, and went and threw some chicken on the grill with green mesquite wood. He turned it in and got first place. It’s the luck of the draw, and I was proud of that.”
Lately, though, Cotter said that things seem slower, and lamented the fact that locals no longer visit the cook-off, just the teams support the association.
“Back in the 80s, the people running the show took the cooking teams to Midway on Friday and provide them with food and drink,” Cotter said. “There would be a band and everything. But at that time, Madison was a dry county, so what was interesting is that they would put the keg from the dinner at the cooking grounds the next day, and it was about like deer looking at a feeder.”
Cotter and his partner, Mike Brooks, both said that the appreciation of the MSCA showed, but things really took off when Mike and Linda Manning came in.
“They began soliciting teams at other cooks and got this one here to really take off,” Cotter said.” There were bands here, and this really grew. The Mannings really wanted to see Madisonville grow. They made you feel welcome.”
Top Hand Cookers enjoys the competition even now.
“Of all the cook-offs we’ve been in, this has been our favorite,” Cotter said. “It’s a great cook-off, and I enjoy all the people coming around here. I wish there were more participation.”
•Derek Manning, an organizer of the cook-off, said 29 teams competed on Friday and Saturday, which was up from last year’s 25. With great, although hot, weather, the cooks participating were happy with the results.
MSCA President Matt Clark praised the volunteers.
“This has been great,” he said. “These guys work their fingers to the bone.”
Aside from the fees charged to the teams, the auction raised more than $16,185, the proceeds of which go toward scholarships for Madison County students.