This is the fifteenth installment of "Eat This List" - a semi-regularly recurring list of things chefs, farmers, writers and other food experts think you ought to know about.
Getting tapped as a judge for a barbecue competition sounds like a carnivore's dream come true, especially when it's at the level of The Jack. For 25 years, cooking teams from around the world have converged upon Lynchburg, Tennessee to battle for smoke-soaked supremacy at the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue.
This past Saturday, 25,000 barbecue devotees showed up to cheer on the 76 United States and 23 international teams that had qualified to participate by winning at the state level or various prestigious competitions. Chicken, ribs, pork and brisket were mandatory categories, and sauce, cook's choice and dessert were optional.
I got to taste them all.
I've been Kansas City Barbeque Society certified since 2008 and judged other food events, so this wasn't my first rodeo, but nothing compares to a competition where a $10,000 prize and such high-test bragging rights are on the line. Richmond, Virginia's Cool Smoke team took home the Grand Champion title, as well as Rockwell, Iowa's Pig Skin BBQ for a separately-judged Winner's Circle of previous Jack champs.
Judges like me left with full stomachs, sauce-stained clothes and some insight into what it takes to judge - and win - at competitive barbecue.
It's a KCBS-sanctioned event, which means that particular rules apply. It's all blind tasting, which means that the six judges at each table identify the entries only by number to ensure impartiality, and the meat must stand for itself. (At some competitions like Memphis In May, site visits are a part of the judging.)
Each entry is delivered to the tent in a plain, white, styrofoam box, usually with the meat arranged atop a bed of parsley or lettuce. Garnishes and other visual embellishments are strictly forbidden, because they may identify a particular entry, and the open box is presented to the judges to visually inspect before they take their first bite.
The four standard categories - chicken, ribs, pork and brisket - are scored from 9 (highest) to 2 (lowest without being disqualified) on the criteria of appearance, taste and tenderness, and the team with the highest composite score wins that category. Scores for each category go toward an overall Grand Champion win (max is 720), so to win, make it as appetizing to the eyes as it is to the mouth.
(Then again, looks can be deceiving. I sampled several entries that looked like heaven and tasted like Hades - and vice-versa.)
2. Pros resist the second bite
At this event, each major category meant six or seven pieces of meat for each judge, plus at least three or four in the sauce, cook's choice and dessert arenas. That means anywhere from 33 to more than 40 bites to assess over the course of a few hours, and I'm here to tell you - it adds up, and you can't wash it down with a brewski because...
3. Beer and bourbon are verboten
It's not just so their facilities remain unimpaired; it's also to prevent flavors from being altered by the aftertaste. Judges drink water only and may not use scented wipes to clean their fingers, but are allowed to use saltine crackers to cleanse the palate between bites or rounds. (Smart dessert competitors may find that judges are partial to sweets with evident spirits in them by that point in the day.)
4. Greatness isn't always the goal
The refrain I heard echoed by competitors is that while this assures a certain level of quality (a team has to win at several local and state levels to make it this far), even veterans of the competition are sometimes afraid to blaze forth and make their mark, because it might not fit the winning profile. Jokes abound about striving to cook the most "perfectly average" entries - and in my opinion, that's a bit of a shame for everyone.
As a judge, I know I have to set my personal tastes aside and not compare what's in front of me to, say, the chopped whole hog that Sam Jones makes in Ayden, North Carolina, Wayne Mueller's brisket from Taylor, Texas or one of Desiree Robinson's barbecued bologna sandwiches at Cozy Corner in Memphis, Tennessee - but I can't pretend it's not difficult, or even that it's a good thing.
But I'm just one judge. One who may have scored a little bit higher for folks who delivered some significant brisket bark or gave straight 9's to a mostly un-sauced rib with serious smoke flavor.
5. The jack of all trades wins the day
Want to stand out? Enter the dessert category or cook's choice, where anything goes and you can get wild with ingredients and presentation. There are a bazillion identical chicken thighs floating around, but everyone will remember the smoked twice-baked potatoes with a perfect bacon shard, or the whiskey apple cheesecake that was the ideal final bite at the end of a meaty marathon.
6. Forget the manicure
There are always paper napkins and often wet wash cloths on the table, but if you can't deal with sticky fingers, this is not the gig for you.
7. Sauce and brine can't mask bad meat
That doesn't mean we've lost all our faculties, though. Improperly cooked or just plain gnarly meat can't hide behind even the most delightful sauce (one table of judges were served raw chicken and another got pork that tasted "like blue cheese" - when there was none in sight), but as a judge, we must take the icky with the excellent.
8. Judging is serious business
And boy, do folks mean it. While some tables hoot and holler (after their slips are turned in), I was shushed by a judge at my table for speaking before the group next to us was done. She explained to me after that we weren't to even discuss the weather so as not to break their focus. That was...a tad more extreme than in my previous experience, but I greatly respected her dedication to the task.
The same goes for the wonderfully colorful and knowledgable characters who populate the competition barbecue community, going to far as to earn their "PhB" or Doctor of BBQ Philosophy credentials. Master Judge and PhB Mike Lake (my table captain for the event) told me there are fewer than 50 who have been issued the title, which exemplifies their commitment to the craft - and they didn't get there by standing around licking their fingers. Lake wrote a lengthy dissertation on the history of stockyards and Ardie Davis (a.k.a. Remus Powers, PhB) has penned multiple books on barbecue technique.
9. Barbecue is a spectator sport
That doesn't stop hundreds of fans from sitting down in the stands at the judging pavilion to watch other people eat. Some judges, once they've handed in the category's score sheet, will take pity on the freezing masses and dole out their leftovers to the devoted masses, who somehow don't seem to mind that the rib they've been handed has a big, gnarly bite taken out of it. Be kind and generous to these people - they dream of someday sitting where you're lucky enough to be.
Note: The gallery photos were take by the excellent Ed Rode.