I have eaten barbecue in Memphis and Kansas City and numerous points in between, have helped run the annual contest at the Flint Farmers Market, once conducted my own amateur competition and smoked meat myself.
But I always thought that, to know I am really serious about the “low ‘n’ slow” way of cooking, I needed to become a certified judge. And now I am.
There are two certifying organizations in the country, the Kansas City Barbecue Society and Memphis in May. Kansas City B.S. is the larger, sanctioning 500 contests annually in the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean and Europe and having 20,000 dues-paying members and 26,000 certified judges.
To become certified, one has to attend a four-hour class after first paying $35 to join the KCBS. The class itself costs $70.
It seemed like every year the classes were being offered two states away or I found out about a closer one too late. But this year I was on it. In the spring I saw that a class was to be offered Aug. 20 as part of the Blues, Brews and Barbecue KCBS contest in Birch Run.
I got myself to SloBones restaurant in Frankenmuth on the appointed day and received instruction from KCBS rep Bunny Tuttle from Pleasant Hill, Mo. The day was capped by trial-run judging of meat in all four categories: pork ribs, pork shoulder, beef brisket and chicken.
Now I was ready to take my seat at the contest two days later among, in almost all cases, more experienced judges. Table captain Jo Anne Gowdey of Sarnia, Ont., said she has worked 30 contests. Janet Lietz and husband Dennis of Ortonville are veterans of 10.
KCBS protocol for judges are simple but strict: No talking until all the score sheets have been turned in, no changing any score, period, no fraternizing with teams until the judging is finished, no cell phone use during judging, no having your buddy sit next to you, eat only with the hands and, shucks, no licking the fingers. That’s a tough one.
Rules for contestants are no less firm: All entries are to be arranged in 9-by-9-inch foam boxes, sauce is permitted but there better not be a drop on the bottom of the box, choice of garnishes is limited to lettuce leaves, parsley (curly and flat-leaf) and cilantro but no kale, endive or red leaf lettuce. Don’t write on the box and don’t include toothpicks, skewers or any other “foreign objects.”
Scoring is on a scale of 9 to 1 with 9 being excellent and 1 being inedible. Six is average.
As for standards for judging the different meats, that is less definitive. Meat on ribs should definitely not be falling off the bone or nearly so. If brisket is properly cooked, fibers should separate when you hold a piece by one end and gently shake it. Mushy is not tender, it’s below average.
Myself, I would require that some exterior “bark” be included in pulled pork samples to improve texture, but KCBS only says that’s acceptable. Most of the entries my table judged did have some.
Properly, the KCBS gives its criteria (appearance, flavor, texture) different numerical weights, but with some mysterious mathematical waves of the hand.
Appearance carries a weight of 0.5600, taste 2.2972 and texture/tenderness 1.1428. I understand adding numbers after the decimal point to eliminate ties but to four places?
The result is razor-thin margins separating some teams. For the overall champion, Smokin’ in the D earned 651.3940 points, followed by Detroit Pigskin Barbecue with 651.3832.
A special – and rare – honor is a perfect score. The iBQ’n team from Rockford earned a perfect 180 for its brisket, meaning every judge awarded 9’s across the board. My table obviously didn’t judge that sample because I didn’t give anything all 9’s.
Being a barbecue judge is serious business – to a point. The judge’s oath is a study in tongue-in-cheek:
“I do solemnly swear to objectively and subjectively evaluate each barbecue meat . . . I accept my duty . . . so that truth, justice, excellence in barbecue and the American way of life may be strengthened and preserved forever.”
Competition teams pay a $450 entry fee, spend thousands on smokers and other gear and for travel, said Dennis Lietz.
Prize money of $10,000 drew 33 teams, but only the top five in points in each category received checks. Grand champion Firehouse Smoke won $2,000.
The objective/subjective aspect came into play for me on the issue of glaze. In the chicken category, six thighs were beautifully arranged in each of six boxes. In four, a thin layer of glaze had been painted on after the thighs were taken off the heat. In the other two, some glaze was applied a little before that, rendering a bronze effect that I prefer to the shiny look of glaze applied after cooking. I also think fresh glaze masks the character of the meat and can be cloying.
But other judges surely don’t agree.
But as contest co-coordinator Rich Tuttle said, a judge becomes more confident in his or her valuations with experience. “After you’ve judged 10 contests, you’ll be really secure in your scoring and opinions.”
Judges have the option of anonymously filling out comment cards about the respective samples for the teams. But I found that in haste to turn in score sheets, I didn’t remember box numbers or my observations. But I’m sure I will get better at that.
The fact of the matter is that virtually all the entries are good in almost every respect, making it challenging to fairly score them. There was one exception in Birch Run, a brisket entry that was overly peppery.
“I don’t know what they were trying to do on that one,” remarked table captain Gowdey. That one was a no-brainer to score – low.