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Grilling the perfect mouth-watering, juicy steak has been an art pursued by many, but obtained by few self-proclaimed "grill masters."

Some of those who by all accounts have grilled a steak to perfection will converge on Mason City on July 5-6 for the 2019 River City Steak Challenge, in its third year at the MacNider Campground.

Jim and Leona Sallee have run the Steak Cookoff Association-sanctioned event since it first came to Mason City in 2016 and have seen continued growth in participants and spectators each year.

Last year's event attracted 54 contestants, doubling the number of participants during the inaugural contest, which saw 26 cooks vying for thousands of dollars in prize money, entry into the SCA World Championship and bragging rights.

The event is open to the public.

"We're trying to grow it and make it bigger here because it's such a fun event," said Leona Sallee. "We expect the same growth this year as we experienced from 2017 to 2018. It is becoming quite popular."

The SCA cook-offs have become popular as well, as hundreds are held worldwide each year after humble beginnings in 2013. While the United States hosts the most challenges, the concept has expanded to Germany, Japan, Spain, Australia and Holland the past few years.

Leona said that while no international cooks have signed up for the Mason City event, all parts of the U.S. will be represented July 5-6, including cooks from the Midwest and as far away as Texas, New Jersey and Florida.

"There will be some heavy hitters here this year," Jim said. "The prize money has continued to increase, so Mason City is a big draw."

Steak Cookoff Association was founded in late 2013 by Brett Gallaway and Ken Phillips, and according to the website, there were only nine steak cook-offs in the United States.

In 2014, SCA sanctioned 19 events, then in 2015, there were 47 events, including Europe and Canada. By 2016, SCA sanctioned 87 events, and in 2017, there were 116 events with cook-offs in the U.S., Japan, Canada, Belgium, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, Germany and Australia. 

More than 200 events were scheduled in 2018, with that number will grow this year, according to Leona.

Steak cook-offs 101

The 2019 River City Steak Challenge will allow grill masters three opportunities to finish in the money.

Fareway provides most of the steaks, while the remaining are purchased with funds from entry fees, $150 per challenge. Cooks have three chances for the top payout and entry into the SCA World Championship, which is given to the top three finishers.

This year's prize money will total $15,500, with $1,000 awarded to the first-place finisher in each steak challenge. Second place takes home $700, while third is awarded $500.

The Sallees say the process is fascinating as contestants draw lots to see who picks the first steaks off of a table chock full of Grade A beef. Once the steaks are chosen, the grilling begins.

Cooks are allowed to use any spices they choose and cook their steaks on any heat source they desire. Most use a high-end PK charcoal grill, Jim said. There have been tales of one grill master cooking a steak on a shovel over an open flame at different U.S. events.

Once the steaks are grilled, each table of judges – usually 10 – will get steaks placed in boxes to keep them warm and judges take just one bite to determine the winners.

The steaks are judged on appearance, how close to medium they are cooked, taste, texture and then are given an overall number.

"It only takes one bite to determine the flavor, texture and how good a steak is," Jim said. "Judges have to go through a class and be sanctioned for these events."

Leona said that judges need only half of each steak for the judging, so the other half of each is donated to feed the event helpers and personnel from the Mason City Fire Department and area law enforcement.

"They are first responders," Jim said. "They deserve quality steaks."

Jim said there will be a SCA judge class conducted at 10:30 a.m. on July 5 for anyone interested in taking part of these growing events.

"This is a great event for Mason City," Leona said. "We won an award from Visit Mason City for last year's event. We just want to get the word out that it is happening each year and we really look for it to grow."

To register, visit www.steakcookoffs.com. For more information, call Jim and Leona Sallee at 641-425-2721.

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Jerry Smith is the special projects editor at the Globe Gazette. Reach him at 302-922-0046.

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