"It's not all about the brisket, it's about the friends you make."

That was the view of Clint Cantell, 40, of Garden City, one of the competitors at this weekend's fourth annual Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned New York State BBQ Championship, a two-day contest and fundraiser that began at the Suffolk County Police Athletic League Sports Complex in Holtsville yesterday.

Cantell said he bonded with fellow competitors when he flew to Kansas City for the American Royal - an invitation-only barbecue competition of grand champion teams - with just one suitcase, and was forced to borrow all his utensils, cookers and rubs for the competition. "They become your family away from home," he said of fellow competitors yesterday.

The event features 36 teams cooking off to raise money for the Suffolk County PAL Children with Special Needs program and the New Interdisciplinary School in Yaphank, which offers education to children with developmental disabilities from birth through age 5, according to Rich Gorgone of the Suffolk PAL, who organized the event with BBQ Brethren.

Judges score the teams in four categories - chicken, ribs, pork and brisket - each judged on appearance, texture, and taste, said Phil Rizzardi, 50, of Nesconset, who founded the BBQ Brethren in 2003. There is more than $8,000 in prizes up for grabs.

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"Win, lose or draw, it's a whole lot of fun," said Gary Kowalski, 52, of Hicksville, who has competed with his family team for five years in various states.

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"These people would give the shirts off their backs, but it might have some barbeque sauce on it," Rizzardi said of the charity event. He described BBQ Brethren, which he said has 1,700 members from 190 countries, as a brotherhood that "promotes the art of low and slow barbecue."

During Bucks for Bones, the people's choice rib competition yesterday, attendees purchased tickets from the PAL for a dollar per rib. Those who purchased at least five tickets were eligible to vote for their favorite. There is also a $5 donation per vehicle for parking. All proceeds go to the program and school, said Gorgone, 39, of Bohemia.

Competition gets more serious today when teams vie to see who will be the reigning grand champion and eligible to represent New York in the American Royal in October.

Rizzardi, competing in the Brothers in Smoke team, will watch his barbecues through the night on computer screens that give temperature readings. "You cook the meats up to 18 hours but then have a 10-minute window to impress the judges with perfection," he said. "The best in the world can be beaten by a rookie; it all comes down to the taste buds."