As soon as I get out of the car, the smell of smoked meat beckons.
Men in aprons are huddled around a pig cooker in the parking lot outside the C.C. Jones Building in downtown Apex. Stoke
and Smoke and Up in √$moke teams have been cooking since the night before. As the cooks lift the cooker’s heavy hinged lid, bystanders whip out their cellphones to take photos of the glistening, mahogany-colored racks of ribs.
On this February day, 60 people are forgoing the 65-degree weather to attend barbecue school. The Kansas City Barbeque Society, or KCBS for short, is hosting a class to certify judges for the new Peak City Pig Fest, the Triangle’s first big-time barbecue cook-off, launching in Apex in June.
This five-hour, $100 class is my introduction to the subculture that is competitive barbecue: a world dominated by apron-wearing, tong-wielding men who speak a language all its own (sculptured meat, cook teams and money muscle) and wear what appears to be a judge’s uniform (lanyards with KCBS name tags decorated with pins from contests judged.)
I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. I love barbecue. My husband, a native Missourian, has shown me the best of Kansas City’s barbecue scene: Arthur Bryant’s, Jack Stack and L.C.’s. I’ve also eaten my fair share of barbecue in North and South Carolina. I couldn’t wait to get schooled as a barbecue judge. I could think of nothing better than spending an afternoon, tasting plate after plate.
The day will be long and filling, and not at all what I expected.
Our instructor is Don Harwell, a former vice president of KCBS, which is the nation’s largest sanctioning body for barbecue competitions with more than 16,000 members and 400 contests. We’ll be tasting and judging the only four meats that KCBS allows teams to cook: chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder and beef brisket. That means the chopped, vinegary whole hog barbecue beloved in Eastern North Carolina is out. So is gas; only charcoal and wood are allowed.
I’m seated between Bill and Neva Newby, who live north of Asheboro and became interested after helping a friend compete, and former state Sen. David Weinstein of Raleigh, who jokes that he hopes to become the first Jewish barbecue judge in the state and says, “Don’t tell my rabbi that I’m taking this class.”
Among us are about a dozen members of cook teams looking for insider knowledge on the judging process; two couples, from Maryland and Florida; and WTVD weatherman Don Schwenneker.
Becoming KCBS certified doesn’t guarantee you’ll judge any contests; you still must apply to the contest organizers. Peak City Pig Fest organizers already had a waiting list but were looking for a mix of experienced and new judges.
A whole new world
I’ve judged more than 50 cooking contests in the past five years, from pies at the N.C. State Fair to office chili contests. While determining a winner is serious, judging tends to be informal. We chat, share impressions about the food, even come to a consensus on the winner. My favorite technique is to save samples of dishes I like to compare with others as the judging continues.
That is not how it’s done in the world of competitive barbecue. Teams spend about $1,000 to compete (entry fees, food, fuel and travel expenses), and it soon becomes clear how serious KCBS is about the process.
Harwell, the instructor, spends the first three hours explaining the rules – minutiae that ranges from what garnish is allowed in the entry boxes with the meat (green leaf lettuce, parsley or cilantro only) to a ban on pooled barbecue sauces. We sign a “Judges’ Code of Conduct” that requires us to refrain from consuming “alcohol or other mind-altering substances prior to or during judging.”
We learn about the blind judging process. No fraternizing with cook teams before judging. No peeking when teams drop off their entries (judges are actually sequestered!).
Do: Arrive on time. Cleanse your palate between tastes. Eat with your fingers. Judge each entry on its own merit.
Don’t: Talk to the other judges while tasting. React to the food either verbally or by facial expression. Share your scorecard. Compare one entry against another. (One judge was stripped of certification for texting and taking photos, based on suspicions that he was communicating with contestants.)
At this point, it dawns on me this going to be a lot harder than it looks. It’s very hard not to react to food, to prevent a “mmmm” from escaping your lips or to refrain from frowning after a bad bite.
The first taste
Finally we get to eat something, with Harwell guiding us.
First up, chicken. The container of moist, glazed chicken thighs works down the tables, each with six judges. As we take our first bites, the judge-to-be seated beside me can’t help himself. “That’s good,” Weinstein murmurs. Other whispers erupt in the room. Harwell chastises: “I hear some talking.”
Now, we are asked to rank the chicken from one (disqualification) to nine (excellent). I scored it a seven. Wrong! We should have disqualified it for an illegal garnish of red leaf lettuce.
Next up, ribs. I warily eye the garnish, refusing to be tricked again. (Is that more red leaf lettuce or just drops of barbecue sauce on green leaf lettuce?) Then I catch myself grimacing in response to a tough bite of rib. I quickly straighten my face.
Weinstein and the man next to him start giggling over the fact that two ribs are stuck together and must be pulled apart (a mistake that be fatal to a team’s entry if there aren’t enough ribs for each judge.) Our table captain, an experienced judge, keeps reminding us: “No talking please.”
Will she make it?
At this point, I actually stressed out. This was supposed to be a fun afternoon and indicative of many more to come. But I’m struggling to keep a poker face, distracted by the giggling men beside me and guilty about being shushed.
As we taste our way through the pork shoulder and brisket, my technique improves. I spot the kale as an interloper garnish. A few fellow judges notice that the brisket isn’t cut correctly to serve all the judges at the table. We learn how smoke rings, a desirable sign of proper low-and-slow cooking, can be “faked” by using Morton’s Tender Quick salt.
At the end of class, I’m struck by the fact that this gig as a barbecue judge may sound like fun but takes real skill. I wonder if I’d measure up. While I’m pondering my barbecue judging future, Harwell announces there’s only one thing left to do: be sworn in.
“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.”
Then we waddle out the door, and I am left hoping that I can live up to those ideals.