October 28th, 2013
06:00 PM ET
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This is the fifteenth installment of "Eat This List" - a semi-regularly recurring list of things chefs, farmers, writers and other food experts think you ought to know about.

Getting tapped as a judge for a barbecue competition sounds like a carnivore's dream come true, especially when it's at the level of The Jack. For 25 years, cooking teams from around the world have converged upon Lynchburg, Tennessee to battle for smoke-soaked supremacy at the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue.

This past Saturday, 25,000 barbecue devotees showed up to cheer on the 76 United States and 23 international teams that had qualified to participate by winning at the state level or various prestigious competitions. Chicken, ribs, pork and brisket were mandatory categories, and sauce, cook's choice and dessert were optional.

I got to taste them all.

I've been Kansas City Barbeque Society certified since 2008 and judged other food events, so this wasn't my first rodeo, but nothing compares to a competition where a $10,000 prize and such high-test bragging rights are on the line. Richmond, Virginia's Cool Smoke team took home the Grand Champion title, as well as Rockwell, Iowa's Pig Skin BBQ for a separately-judged Winner's Circle of previous Jack champs.

Judges like me left with full stomachs, sauce-stained clothes and some insight into what it takes to judge - and win - at competitive barbecue.

1. Flavor only gets you so far
In the restaurant and backyard world, smoked meat needs only to taste kick-ass to be considered a champion. On the competition circuit, things are a whole lot different. All the pomp and pageantry of pig-shaped smokers, porcine pun team names and finger-licking frivolity goes out the window once the meat enters the judging tent at an event like The Jack.

It's a KCBS-sanctioned event, which means that particular rules apply. It's all blind tasting, which means that the six judges at each table identify the entries only by number to ensure impartiality, and the meat must stand for itself. (At some competitions like Memphis In May, site visits are a part of the judging.)

Each entry is delivered to the tent in a plain, white, styrofoam box, usually with the meat arranged atop a bed of parsley or lettuce. Garnishes and other visual embellishments are strictly forbidden, because they may identify a particular entry, and the open box is presented to the judges to visually inspect before they take their first bite.

The four standard categories - chicken, ribs, pork and brisket - are scored from 9 (highest) to 2 (lowest without being disqualified) on the criteria of appearance, taste and tenderness, and the team with the highest composite score wins that category. Scores for each category go toward an overall Grand Champion win (max is 720), so to win, make it as appetizing to the eyes as it is to the mouth.

(Then again, looks can be deceiving. I sampled several entries that looked like heaven and tasted like Hades - and vice-versa.)

2. Pros resist the second bite
As veteran judge Chris Chamberlain counseled me, even if you love it, a second bite means the difference between eating two pounds of food at a sitting versus four. It seems unlikely, but you really can determine the worthiness of an entry in a single bite. As a judge, it's crucial to pace yourself so the later competitors get a fair shake, and competitors need to make sure their awesomeness gets across in a solitary nibble.

At this event, each major category meant six or seven pieces of meat for each judge, plus at least three or four in the sauce, cook's choice and dessert arenas. That means anywhere from 33 to more than 40 bites to assess over the course of a few hours, and I'm here to tell you - it adds up, and you can't wash it down with a brewski because...

3. Beer and bourbon are verboten
An ice-cold beer or a whiskey-spiked Coke go hand-in-hand with copious amounts of barbecue, right? Perhaps for the pitmasters, but judges operating under the rules of KCBS or some of the other competitive barbecue organizations are not permitted to consume alcohol while performing their duties.

It's not just so their facilities remain unimpaired; it's also to prevent flavors from being altered by the aftertaste. Judges drink water only and may not use scented wipes to clean their fingers, but are allowed to use saltine crackers to cleanse the palate between bites or rounds. (Smart dessert competitors may find that judges are partial to sweets with evident spirits in them by that point in the day.)

4. Greatness isn't always the goal
When you're firing up a pork shoulder for your friends in the backyard, or sampling barbecue at roadside joints across the land, you're in search of specific and spectacular. In competition barbecue, this isn't necessarily the goal. If anything, it's akin to the way the Westminster Kennel Club dog show is judged. Ol' Blue might be the finest bloodhound known to mankind, but if he doesn't adhere closely to the breed standard, he won't win.

The refrain I heard echoed by competitors is that while this assures a certain level of quality (a team has to win at several local and state levels to make it this far), even veterans of the competition are sometimes afraid to blaze forth and make their mark, because it might not fit the winning profile. Jokes abound about striving to cook the most "perfectly average" entries - and in my opinion, that's a bit of a shame for everyone.

As a judge, I know I have to set my personal tastes aside and not compare what's in front of me to, say, the chopped whole hog that Sam Jones makes in Ayden, North Carolina, Wayne Mueller's brisket from Taylor, Texas or one of Desiree Robinson's barbecued bologna sandwiches at Cozy Corner in Memphis, Tennessee - but I can't pretend it's not difficult, or even that it's a good thing.

But I'm just one judge. One who may have scored a little bit higher for folks who delivered some significant brisket bark or gave straight 9's to a mostly un-sauced rib with serious smoke flavor.

5. The jack of all trades wins the day
You may be known around the county for your rockin' ribs or your bodacious brisket, but if you want to bring home an overall title, you have to master chicken and pork as well. In a KCBS contest, a 180 is like a 300 in bowling: a perfect score in a category. It is a rare occurrence, and it still doesn't mean you'll be crowned overall champion.

Want to stand out? Enter the dessert category or cook's choice, where anything goes and you can get wild with ingredients and presentation. There are a bazillion identical chicken thighs floating around, but everyone will remember the smoked twice-baked potatoes with a perfect bacon shard, or the whiskey apple cheesecake that was the ideal final bite at the end of a meaty marathon.

6. Forget the manicure
It makes sense that you'd pick up a rib with your bare hands, because who are you, the Queen of England? But you'll also be picking up the rest of the entries with your sauce-stained digits. That includes all formats of pork from pulled to tenderloin, slices of brisket (which some judges pull apart to determine if it meets their doneness standards), super slicked-up chicken and more. Sauce even gets judged atop a few strands of pulled pork, but except for removing the meat from the box, utensils are really employed.

There are always paper napkins and often wet wash cloths on the table, but if you can't deal with sticky fingers, this is not the gig for you.

7. Sauce and brine can't mask bad meat
If we might talk sauce for a second...YAWN. Somewhere along the way, sweet, fruity sauces and injected or super-brined meat started winning competitions, and people took note. Unfortunately this means that an awful lot of the barbecue tastes the same, and a judge stands a good chance of undergoing sugar shock or salt bloat by the time the chicken category is over.

That doesn't mean we've lost all our faculties, though. Improperly cooked or just plain gnarly meat can't hide behind even the most delightful sauce (one table of judges were served raw chicken and another got pork that tasted "like blue cheese" - when there was none in sight), but as a judge, we must take the icky with the excellent.

8. Judging is serious business
Before every KCBS competition, judges (all of whom have gone through a training course and are registered with the organization) must listen to a lengthy recitation of the rules, usually on a CD over a loudspeaker, and re-take an official barbecue oath.

"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."

And boy, do folks mean it. While some tables hoot and holler (after their slips are turned in), I was shushed by a judge at my table for speaking before the group next to us was done. She explained to me after that we weren't to even discuss the weather so as not to break their focus. That was...a tad more extreme than in my previous experience, but I greatly respected her dedication to the task.

The same goes for the wonderfully colorful and knowledgable characters who populate the competition barbecue community, going to far as to earn their "PhB" or Doctor of BBQ Philosophy credentials. Master Judge and PhB Mike Lake (my table captain for the event) told me there are fewer than 50 who have been issued the title, which exemplifies their commitment to the craft - and they didn't get there by standing around licking their fingers. Lake wrote a lengthy dissertation on the history of stockyards and Ardie Davis (a.k.a. Remus Powers, PhB) has penned multiple books on barbecue technique.

9. Barbecue is a spectator sport
25,000 people show up in Lynchburg to attend The Jack, and the vast majority of them won't get to sample any of the meat cooked for the competition. Teams cook for the judges - and often share with each other - but for the most part, they're not just handing meat out for the asking. They're there to win (and hang out in the company of their smoky brethren).

That doesn't stop hundreds of fans from sitting down in the stands at the judging pavilion to watch other people eat. Some judges, once they've handed in the category's score sheet, will take pity on the freezing masses and dole out their leftovers to the devoted masses, who somehow don't seem to mind that the rib they've been handed has a big, gnarly bite taken out of it. Be kind and generous to these people - they dream of someday sitting where you're lucky enough to be.

5 slices of barbecue wisdom
Risk a brisket on the grill
How to cook ribs
Picking the pig, flipping the hog
Busting barbecue myths
Rescue group brings relief in the form of barbecue
See all grilling wisdom on Eatocracy

Note: The gallery photos were take by the excellent Ed Rode.

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. rb nikl

    hey what the heck does a table captain do, i was asked to this and not be a judge ?

    November 1, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • Benn

      JFGI lunkhead.

      November 1, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  2. rb nikl

    So just what is a table captain , do they judge ?

    November 1, 2013 at 9:00 am |
  3. Cullen James

    I like how the Texans jump right in accusing us Tennesseans of overusing sauce while overlooking the fact that The Jack is an INTERNATIONAL competition. Memphis is the home of dry rubbed ribs, y'all. BTW, I was judging in the back corner next to the stage. It was a great competition.

    October 31, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Was fun, no? I can't say I loved everything I was served (far from it), but I felt lucky and was smiling the whole darned time.

      October 31, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
  4. RichardHead@KAT

    In picture #3–How can you even see the smoke ring on the Brisket ? It's been slathered in so much sauce how can you even taste the meat or the taste of the smoke? They sure do things different in TN. In Texas–( The Best BBQ ) in the world...sauce is served on the side,so the TRUE taste of the meat comes through. As I've heard before...If you need to cover it in sauce,your covering up something.
    BTW-Don't Bogart that Butter Milk Pie,My Friend..Pass it over to me. :))

    October 29, 2013 at 9:04 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      That buttermilk pie was MADNESS! And it's funny - they actually tell you specifically NOT to judge the smoke ring because it can be artificially achieved.

      I had some tasty BBQ. But it's definitely not like the regional BBQ styles we've all come to love.

      October 29, 2013 at 9:08 am |
    • jzaks

      Have to agree with you. I have had BBQ all over the country, bad, good and great. I enjoy Texas BBQ the best and like the sauce on the side. But of course it is a personal preference, as I have friends that look like they have been in a sauce war when they finish eating..

      October 30, 2013 at 9:18 am |
      • Kat Kinsman

        I'll take rub over sauce any day. Sauce just gets in the way, and most of them are just too darned sweet. Gimmie smoke and meat.

        October 30, 2013 at 9:47 am |
        • goatsandgreens

          I'm with you on this!!

          October 30, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
        • vatoloke

          Smoke+Sea salt+Fresh ground course black pepper = Terrific brisket

          November 1, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
  5. Ryan Goodman

    Glad you enjoyed the visit to Tennessee Kat! I've been to Lynchburg but have never been able to attend the BBQ competition. Thanks for sharing the experience with us!

    October 29, 2013 at 8:19 am |
  6. JellyBean

    Where is tip number 10?

    October 29, 2013 at 8:13 am |
    • LL&L

      Read the headline again. ;)

      October 29, 2013 at 9:03 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Oops! Fixed it!

      October 29, 2013 at 9:05 am |
    • AleeD®

      Tip #10? Never trust a person with two first names
      Tip #10? Buy low; sell high
      Tip #10? Never marry a man who treats his mother badly
      Tip #10? Silence is golden, but duct tape is silver
      Tip #10? Take one bite of the elephant at a time.

      I saw the original headline, but this was fun. ^_^

      October 29, 2013 at 9:43 am |
      • Alex

        Tip #10 You are not done eating BBQ until you have sauce behind your ears.

        October 29, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
        • Kat Kinsman

          Unless...you prefer un-sauced BBQ. Like I do.

          October 30, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
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