Barack and barbecue: Festival hopes to cash in on Obama's crowd

Bruce Rushton

When he's in town, Barack Obama favors the Euro-Asian food at Bentoh's in Springfield, Ill., but he also likes barbecue. Just ask his go-fer.

The presumptive Democratic nominee for president "eats pretty much anything, from chicken wings and barbecue and ribs to grilled fish and steamed broccoli," personal aide Reggie Love told The New York Times three months ago. Afterward, he is prone to floss his teeth while lying down and watching ESPN, the Times reports.

Obama can have a plate on the house as far as Rusty Simmons of Springfield is concerned. Like other vendors at the Old Capitol Blues and BBQ festival, Simmons is betting that Obama will draw a large, hungry crowd.

So, he has rented two barrel-style barbecue cookers instead of his usual one for today's festival, and with 150 pounds of ribs, an equal amount of pork butt and lots and lots of hot dogs and brats, he'll need them.

"This will be the most I've ever cooked in one sitting," said Simmons, who bought more meat when he found out Obama will be coming. "This is just a hobby. The reason we started this was to cook barbecue for our friends."

About half of the nearly 40 contestants in today's barbecue contest will be selling to the public, and most are like Simmons -- backyarders who have never cooked professionally, said Victoria Clemons, executive director of Downtown Springfield Inc., which is promoting the festival.

"We've told them: Please make decisions based on your capabilities," Clemons said.

Don't tell anyone, but Simmons is cooking with propane, with a bit of hickory for that authentic smoky taste. He expects no trouble from security.

"From what I understand, the Secret Service is being reasonable," he said.

Simmons' biggest fear is the weather. With forecasters saying there is a chance of rain and thunderstorms, he acknowledged his bet on Obama is a gamble he could lose.

"We could end up having more cooked than we sell, that's definitely a risk," Simmons said. "If the weather hits, the bread lines may be getting a donation."

Beyond barbecue, blues music will be booming from a stage at Fifth and Washington streets. Clemons says the music will be stopped when Obama starts talking from a different stage a football field or so away.

Not so, says Shane Denney, drummer for Pleasure Chest, which, presuming all goes as scheduled, should be playing when Obama starts talking.

"We're taking our big PA," Denney said jokingly.

Last year, a couple hundred people were watching when the music started at noon, Denney said. With Obama in the mix, thousands will be within earshot.

"This ought to be a big boost," Denney said. "It's going to be a nightmare getting in and out. I'm hoping they don't have to search everything."

Bruce Rushton can be reached at 788-1542.