Thursday, September 16, 2010

The One Where I Judge a Barbeque Contest

I'm gonna jump ahead in the textbook and bring you the recap of my weekend as a barbeque judge before my Rogers Centre review. Usually when I want to remember things on day/road trips, I take pictures of them. Later on, I look through all my pictures and remember what I wanted to say. Unfortunately, at these barbeque competitions, only certified photographers and such are allowed to take pictures. So I'll be doing this while the weekend is somewhat fresh in my mind. As a quick refresher, this is how I became a certified barbeque judge.

Before I begin, I'll offer this piece of advice now, as well as at the end of the post: If you love barbeque, become a certified judge. If you read on, you'll understand why.

I woke up early on Saturday and drove up to Norwalk, CT, where I had volunteered to be a judge for both days of the contest. Saturday was the New England Barbeque Society (NEBS) grilling contest, which was followed by the whole hog contest. Sunday was the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) event. Everything was held at the Norwalk Oyster Festival, which is actually a pretty legitimate thing -- one organizer who I talked to estimated that over the weekend, approximately 50,000 people would be there.

The judges' meeting for the NEBS contest -- featuring such foods as seafood, ribeye, sausage, and a dessert -- was at 11AM. Getting to the recommended parking lot at about 10:25AM, I had plenty of time to make it to the festival via the shuttle bus. However, a handful of other prospective judges and I waited for about 20 minutes for the bus to arrive. After loading everyone up, driving the 2 miles to the festival, and walking across the fairgrounds to the judges' tent, it was about 11:10. Unfortunately, they don't let anyone in after the meeting has started.

The other judges on the bus and I talked to Bill, the competition organizer; unfortunately, he couldn't do anything for us in terms of the grilling contest. But luckily enough for me, he gave me the sympathy assignment of being both an on-site and blind tasting judge for the whole hog contest. Some of the other judges didn't have the time to stick around for whole hog and had to go back home without having eaten anything.

I had more than three hours to kill at this place while I waited for the whole hog judges' meeting. Still, I'd gotten into this large festival for free -- judges don't have to pay to get into any of these things. So I did what anyone would do: I walked around the crafts booths and continuously stole samples of jams and dips, making sure not to fill up too much. The great weather helped too. If anything, the outside time was probably good for me. After making about ten laps around the fairgrounds, it was time for the whole hog contest.

After the meeting, we divided up into groups of three judges. Each group would visit the cooking sites of three different barbeque teams. And when you get there, as a judge, they treat you like a VIP. The judges are usually invited under the cooking tent to a fancy looking table with a tablecloth. The cooking team then presents their hog to you. (re-reads last sentence...giggles....) The head cook usually gives you a brief spiel about how they cooked the pig, and then they feed you.

All three teams I judged gave us several different cuts of the pig, from the crispy skin, to the loin, to the cheek, to the bacon. The food all ranged from very good to fucking awesome -- pardon the judging lingo. Still, the best part about the on-site judging may have been the VIP treatment. The cooking teams kiss your ass and normal festival-goers stand outside the tent and take pictures of you guys as if you had some sort of actual authority.

After this, we went back to the judging tent, and I joined another group of judges for the blind whole hog part of the contest -- that is, all the teams turn in samples of their whole hog and the judges taste them without knowing whose is whose. Usually, judges don't get to do both the on-site and the blind judging, but the missed NEBS sympathy assignment was still in full effect. After eating more whole hog and scoring it, I packed up the leftovers and headed home.

Day 2!

I woke up even earlier on day two, determined to park somewhere where I wouldn't have to rely on a shuttle bus. On my way in, I found a meter spot that was about a five-minute walk from the fairgrounds. Of course, the meters didn't run on Sunday. Perfect. Free parking. I walked over to the judges' tent and got there a good 45 minutes before the judges' meeting.

Fast-forwarding through the next two hours -- I sat around and talked to the other judges, we had the meeting, and then we waited for the chicken turn-in at noon. Although one thing I always get a kick out of is the oath that the judges recite together before each contest:
I do solemnly swear to objectively and subjectively evaluate each Barbeque meat that is presented to my eyes, my nose, my hands and my palate. I accept my duty to be an Official KCBS Certified Judge, so that truth, justice, excellence in Barbeque and the American Way of Life may be strengthened and preserved forever.
For realsies. You would think something like that would come with a diploma. Oh, wait -- it actually did once I became a certified judge. Yes, I have a diploma from KCBS. These people take themselves very seriously. Sure, you have the people who do one or two contests a year for fun, but then you also have the people who drive hundreds of miles, almost every weekend, to judge barbeque. Again, for realsies.

So noon finally came and we received our chicken. Each table of six judges got six teams' food, and judging was blind and randomized -- we didn't know which teams we were judging, and we never got the same team for more than one of the foods that was turned in (chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket). For the most part, the chicken was good. Two teams' pieces were great. One wasn't that good. Everything else fell somewhere in between. I may have been looking forward to the chicken the least of any of the meats, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Next up, the ribs. We got our six samples, and then dug in. All were very good. One I thought was outstanding. Not as good as the best ribs I've ever had, but close. None of them were bad.

After that, the pulled pork. Again, delicious. I feel like I'm getting redundant: Food is brought to me. It's yummy. I write down some numbers. The process repeats itself with a different food.

Finally, the brisket. Here's where the script diverges a little. Evidently, at contests in the northeast, the brisket is always the weakest entry. My table only got one brisket that we would classify as very good. A few others were decent. Two were flat-out bad. I'd been packing my leftovers in bags all day to take home, but these two briskets didn't even make the cooler cut. If I'm given free food to take home with me and decide not to, you know something's wrong with it.

After the KCBS contest ended, they asked about half the judges to stick around for another hour to judge the non-KCBS-sanctioned "Anything Butt" (anything but the four items they'd turned in already) and sauce categories. Teams don't have to compete in these categories, but there are small cash prizes for the winners, so many teams choose to turn in for these. Not having anything else to do, I stuck around.

Part of the fun of the Anything Butt category is that the teams can turn in literally anything. The rule in the rulebook that the head judge always takes pleasure in reading is that "teams must be willing to eat their own entries." So if a cook likes rocky mountain oysters, I guess I'm digging in.

Luckily for me, the entries were all things I'd eaten before -- there was a filet, a seafood bisque, a hamburger that we think was either lamb or buffalo, a beef wellington, and two other entries I can't seem to remember at the moment. Other tables got things like lamb chops and crepes. Surprisingly, I really liked the seafood bisque over all the red meat. Maybe it's just that I was slowly slipping into a meat coma, but from first looks what I thought would be my least favorite item was actually my favorite. Definitely a smart move by that team to make seafood.

The sauces were all okay. There were two I liked a lot and one vinegary one I didn't care for. I packed them in my cooler to take home, said goodbye to the judges I'd met there, and headed home with both a stomach and a cooler full of meat.

As I said in the beginning of the post, if you like barbeque and you're willing to eat chicken, pig, and cow, you should look into becoming a certified barbeque judge. Yes, it's like $50 to get certified, but I view that as an initial investment that will pay dividends later when you're loaded up with lots of awesome food for free.

I, for one, know that I'll be going back next year. And also looking for other contests in the area to judge in the meantime. Am I going to become one of those people who judges 35 contests a year? No.

Well, at least not at least right now. Ask me again in a year. If I can see you over my giant gut/FUPA, I'll answer.

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