Now, a post that I promised you last week: my experience at a Certified Barbeque Judging Class. I guess it all started a couple of months ago when I began watching a show on TLC called BBQ Pitmasters. This program showcased a handful of barbeque cooking teams who would travel around to contests, competing for culinary fame, trophies, and often tens of thousands of dollars, simply for cooking barbeque. To be fair, the extent to which these cooks would go to ensure perfection was astounding -- 48 hours straight, barely sleeping at all, killing themselves to make sure every minute detail of their food was perfect. But the cooking part wasn't what intrigued me the most.
At every one of these contests, the food is judged by a panel of certified judges, who basically get free entry into these festivals in order to judge plates and plates of awesome barbeque. Hold on -- professionally-cooked, free barbeque? Yeah, I'll bite.
I took a look at the Kansas City Barbeque Society website and found out that in order to become a judge, you have to join the KCBS and attend a class taught by KCBS officials. As luck had it, the class listing page showed one that was taking place in Highland, NY on March 27th. Excitedly, I joined KCBS and then sent in my application and $50 payment for the class.
March 27th rolled around, and I woke up early and made the hour and a half trip north to Highland. I got there at about 9:45, fifteen minutes before the class started, and was immediately impressed at just how many people, mostly from NY-NJ-CT but also from as far away as Maine and Vermont, were there to also become certified judges. (Later on, the instructor would tell us that when they started teaching this class 10-15 years ago, they had to cancel because they couldn't find 7 people to take it. Last Saturday, I would say there were about 90 people there.) I walked up to the registration table and gave my name. The woman at the table looked down the list. I leaned in to take a look to point my name out to her. And then I saw: my name wasn't on the list.
Rolf, the organizer of the event, came over, and I explained to him my situation. I had sent in my forms, but he hadn't received them. He asked if I'd received an email from him. I hadn't, but how was I supposed to know that he'd be sending me an email? He seemed sympathetic but unable to do anything unless a spot opened up. He told me that if someone didn't show by 10:15, I could have their spot. I looked at the clock. It was 9:52. This was going to be a long 23 minutes.
Slowly, people kept trickling in. 10AM hit and there were only four unclaimed nametags left on the registration table. Upset that I'd probably have to drive all the way back home without being able to take the class, I imagined sending an angry, yet eloquently-worded letter to the KCBS and enclosing my membership card, telling them to cancel my membership. Then they'd feel so bad that they'd let me become a judge anyway and send me a package filled with pulled pork, just to make sure there were no hard feelings. I was awoken from my vindictive daydream by Rolf, who told me that they had decided to let me in, regardless of the remaining three people (at that point) showing up. I thanked them profusely and took my seat at a table.
The first two hours or so of the class were all explanation. We listened to a CD explaining judging criteria. We were told how to score each barbeque entry: on a scale of 2 (raw or inedible) to 9 (excellent). The class instructor answered questions and told stories of barbeque contests past, including one about a vegetarian who had somehow become a judge and was awarding all of her entries a 2, since she didn't eat meat. (Yes, she was kicked out once she was discovered.)
Then, the fun began. At each contest, every judge will score six entries each of: chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket. In order to give us hands-on training, we were given three entries of each, and most of them were pretty damn good, at least a 7 (above average). Still, the barbeque here was mass-produced (for the 90 or so people in the class), and I'm expecting even bigger and better things when I do judge my first contest. If you get the chance, watch an episode of BBQ Pitmasters and see for yourself just how amazing the finished product looks.
So why should you become a certified barbeque judge?
- Because you get to eat food that looks like this. And this. And this. And you get to do it for free.
- At each contest, each judge gets six portions of chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket. Twenty-four servings of meat, which we were told weigh about 4 lbs. total. There's no way it would be enjoyable to eat all of it, so we were told that when we go to a contest to bring a cooler. Take a bite of each entry, judge it, and then put it in a Ziploc bag in your cooler and take it home. Yes, taking home this food is encouraged. Awesome.
- Because you meet friendly, like-minded people. Everyone there realizes how crazy everyone else has to be to wake up early on a Saturday and take a 4-hour class about food. But it's a good crazy, definitely in the "not-your-ordinary experience" category. I got to know all the people at my table, and I'm hoping I run into them again at future contests. And in the "it's a small world" department, I even met someone who went to high school with my Aunt and was a patient of my Grandpa, who's a doctor. You never know who might be a barbeque enthusiast. Yes, we're everywhere.