We stood there, at the edge of the field, Saturday morning and inhaled deeply. Ummm, ummm, ummm! The air was filled with wood smoke - a whiff of hickory there, a tinge of mesquite from the left, a hint of apple wood and, yes, the subtle nuance of cherry floating by from another direction. Oh, what a beautiful morning!!
This was the 7th Annual Pork in the Park BBQ Competition in Salisbury, Maryland this past weekend. A Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) sanctioned event, this competition featured 134 cook teams and is the second largest KCBS State competition in the country. For many teams, this was the first event of 2010 and they were ready and raring to cook their best. A contest this size needs at least 160 judges and, in an amazing organizational feat, judges of the four official KCBS categories were 100% Certified.
At 7:30 a.m., Whole Hog judging was just two hours away and we were there as Pig Police, Pork Cops or Pig Patrol. Pick a title. The name varies from contest to contest but the job’s the same. We observe the preparation of each team’s Whole Hog contest entry from the smoker to the turn-in table.
When competing in whole hog, a cook team must cook the hog in one piece and then submit samples of five specific cuts. (Specific lists of cuts vary slightly from contest to contest.) All samples must come from that one pig. It takes skill to be able to cook all areas to perfection. If the loin is perfect, the shoulder may not be quite done and the ribs could be dry.
You must also be able to cut with precision to obtain six comparable samples of each of those five cuts. (All judging is done using six samples.) Whole Hog competitions are not the place to start your competitive career. (This is not to say newbies haven’t tried. A few have even been quite successful.)
The team I observed this time is a young team in terms of competing. They have only tried a few contests and this was their first whole hog. It was an all round learning experience but they stuck with it and turned in a very reputable entry.
As Pig Police, we did not judge the Whole Hog category. A separate batch of judges had that pleasure. In an exit poll, we found most were very pleased with the quality of all of the entries.
At noon, judging of the official KCBS categories of chicken, ribs, pork and brisket began. ALL KCBS contests must include these four categories and they are judged in that order. All other categories such as Whole Hog, and the Friday events for Anything Butt (Chef’s choice) and Seafood, are optional for the cook teams. Specific guidelines for those competitions are determined by the event organizers and not by KCBS. The four official categories are strictly regulated by KCBS and are judged exactly alike, whether here on the East Coast, in the Mid-West or even in California. (The same rules are applied to contests held in Germany, Ireland and other overseas KCBS events.) Only these four scores are used to determine Grand Champion and for national rankings. I did, personally, judge the KCBS categories as well as Friday’s events.
We spent the next two hours, viewing and tasting the entries in the chicken, ribs, pork and brisket competitions. ALL KCBS judging is blind judging, meaning we have no way of knowing whose entries we are tasting. Teams are given number codes before submission which are changed again at the turn-in table. Even after judging, we cannot find out whose food we tasted no matter why we might want to know. All samples in a category are first graded on appearance. Then samples are distributed and graded on taste and texture. Each table of six judges judge the entries of six teams.
Each sample is graded separately on a scale from 2 to 9 with 6 being “average”. A 2 denotes “inedible” and a 9 is “outstanding“. Scores are then tallied and ranked using a computer program. There is a tie-breaker system in place. Cash awards and trophies are awarded in each separate category and for the overall winning teams (Grand Champion) with the highest total scores. Total numerical scores are kept by KCBS to determine the top team of the year, announced at the American Royal in Kansas City in October.
I can say I think this may have been the best overall selection I’ve had in a long time. All of the chicken samples I judged were above average or excellent, however, none were outstanding in my opinion. Only one rib was not of excellent or outstanding quality among the samples at my table. I would have been happy with a rack of any one of those entries. Only one pork sample was disappointing and only one slice of brisket was tough.
Just for the record, we do not eat the entire sampling at that seating. Two maybe three bites of each sample is enough to score with. We bag up our half-eaten leftovers and carry them home for some excellent leftovers. I’ve only met one judge that has eaten everything presented to him at a judging session - easily over 2 pounds of meat!! This is why we, personally, do not judge Whole Hog on the same day as regular judging. I believe I would explode even using a 1 bite system!
Over the years, I have become a whiz at “recreating” with the left-overs. Pork enchiladas are on tomorrow’s menu.
Happy Thanksgiving, Serious Eaters! - With the Thanksgiving preparation madness winding down, and the cooking madness about to begin, I have to take a moment to reflect on the many, many things...