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.
1. Flavor only gets you so far
In the restaurant and backyard world, smoked meat needs only to taste kick-ass to be considered a champion. On the competition circuit, things are a whole lot different. All the pomp and pageantry of pig-shaped smokers, porcine pun team names and finger-licking frivolity goes out the window once the meat enters the judging tent at an event like The Jack.
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
As veteran judge Chris Chamberlain counseled me, even if you love it, a second bite means the difference between eating two pounds of food at a sitting versus four. It seems unlikely, but you really can determine the worthiness of an entry in a single bite. As a judge, it's crucial to pace yourself so the later competitors get a fair shake, and competitors need to make sure their awesomeness gets across in a solitary nibble.
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
An ice-cold beer or a whiskey-spiked Coke go hand-in-hand with copious amounts of barbecue, right? Perhaps for the pitmasters, but judges operating under the rules of KCBS or some of the other competitive barbecue organizations are not permitted to consume alcohol while performing their duties.
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
When you're firing up a pork shoulder for your friends in the backyard, or sampling barbecue at roadside joints across the land, you're in search of specific and spectacular. In competition barbecue, this isn't necessarily the goal. If anything, it's akin to the way the Westminster Kennel Club dog show is judged. Ol' Blue might be the finest bloodhound known to mankind, but if he doesn't adhere closely to the breed standard, he won't win.
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
You may be known around the county for your rockin' ribs or your bodacious brisket, but if you want to bring home an overall title, you have to master chicken and pork as well. In a KCBS contest, a 180 is like a 300 in bowling: a perfect score in a category. It is a rare occurrence, and it still doesn't mean you'll be crowned overall champion.