Saturday, June 4, 2011

Mmmmm! Hickory smoke in the air...

We got up early this morning, The Big Guy and I. Donned in our “uniforms” and wearing official name tags, we packed a cooler with ice packs and a box of zip-loc bags, nothing else, and headed off for our adventure of the day.
We are Certified Barbecue Judges for the Kansas City Barbecue Society and we’d been called into service. There was a barbecue competition in Southern Maryland and they needed us.

It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. The competitive barbecue season begins in this part of the country in mid-April and wraps up around mid-October. Personally, we only judge 8 to 10 contests per season but there are judges, willing and able to travel longer distances, who sample and score as many as 30 contests a year.BBQ judges are not paid nor are our expenses covered by someone else. There are tight timetables to be followed. There are rules. We are kept corralled in a secluded, enclosed area (often a hot and stuffy tent) for several hours straight. We’re told where to sit and long periods of silence are strictly enforced. We are separated from our spouses and/or significant others. The only beverage allowed is plain water. (At least it is usually chilled.)

Hey, I said it was a TOUGH job.In return, we get to taste some of the best smoked meats ever served to mankind. True barbecue is cooked low and slow, creating moist, succulent, flavorful morsels. At least that’s how we hope it tastes. That’s what we’re looking for.

As KCBS (Kansas City Barbecue Society) judges, we have been certified by that organization to judge within specific guidelines for each category of meat presented. KCBS sanctioned categories are chicken, ribs, pork and beef brisket. All sanctioned events MUST include all four of these categories and cook teams MUST participate in all four categories. Likewise, judges MUST judge all four categories.
Many competitions also feature additional events, called “ancillary categories”. Most often these include chef’s choice, anything butt, sausage and whole hog. We have also been presented with seafood, dessert and sauce categories along the way. Participation in these categories is optional for the cooking teams.

Today’s event included only the four basic categories which is more than enough judging to keep us busy and make us uncomfortably full by the time we were done. Judging is serious and extremely filling business.

I will explain how one becomes a Certified Judge, how the actual double-blind judging is done at a competition and what we look for in entries for each category in other posts to come. Suffice it to say, we give three scores for each sample - Appearance, Taste and Tenderness. Each scoring area is weighted differently with appearance carrying the least importance. Scores are based on a point system and winners are determined by a complicated system. National ranking of cooking teams is similar to the NASCAR point system.

Today, my table had what I consider pretty much slightly above average chicken samples, a poor showing of ribs, some good - some poor pork and some of the prettiest but poorest quality brisket samples I’ve had in a long time. This particular competition had a lot of first-time and amateur cook teams and, as experienced judges, we recognize that by the samples themselves.

However, that assessment is based on our quest for perfect and beyond perfect examples of each. All in all, the food was good and, yes, I enjoyed it all. (Well, there was that one piece of brisket that was not really chewable but it was flavorful while we tried.)

Generally, the food we taste at these events represent the “Best of the Best.” One generally does not enter a contest unless they truly believe their product is special. We have judged at some of the largest and most prestigious contests in the country and, yes, I believe we have each, at one time or another, had The Best. That’s why we keep going back and sacrificing our time and energy to help the world discover excellence in barbecue.

Here’s hoping your next piece of chicken is moist, tasty, succulent and the smoke is sweet.

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