Friday, March 12, 2010
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.
This past weekend I took the above oath – with my right hand raised – to become a certified judge for barbeque competitions. And I’m not embarrassed to admit that the pride and sense of accomplishment I felt was not minor. This type of certification isn’t handed out just willy-nilly. You have to earn it.
The way I earned my certification was by attending a 6-hour class run by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. Apparently these guys are the gold standard for judging barbeque competitions and are the driving force behind the TLC show “BBQ Pitmasters,” which follows the lives of people who barbeque competitively. I had seen the show a few times and enjoyed it (it was no “Pawn Stars,” but still good). My friend Scott was also a fan of the show and was intrigued by the whole world of competitive barbeque. How do people get into competitive barbequing? What are the rules? Who decides who the judges are? What criteria do they judge on? How do you become a judge? So he went on the Internet and figured out that the KCBS holds classes throughout the country to certify barbeque judges. Once he found out that the KCBS was holding a class near us, it was a pretty easy decision. We sent in the registration fee (which included membership into the KCBS) and prepared to become official barbeque judges.
As the class neared, I kept getting more and more nervous about it. I didn’t know what to expect from the class and was worried that it’d be a big letdown. I mean, I was expecting to get to eat a ton of awesome food as part of the class and if that didn’t happen, I’d be pissed. Scott shared the same concerns and admitted that he was going into it with low expectations just so he wouldn’t be disappointed. Though he still believed it would be worth our time and money: “Dude, nobody in the world has big enough balls to charge people 75 bucks to learn how to judge barbeque and just tell them ‘if you like the food rank it high, and if you don’t like it then rank it low.’ People would kick the guy’s ass if that’s all they got for their money. There’s not way they pull that shit. They gotta give us actual food to judge. At least I hope the do…”
The day of the class finally arrives. It’s held on a Saturday morning and starts at 9:30. As I’m shuffling my tired ass out the door to meet up with my four other friends that are taking the class with me, I see my little brother’s buddy passed out on my couch. He wakes up, looks at me groggily and says “Good luck at your hot dog eating competition!” then goes back to sleep.
As we’re driving to the class, my friends and I are guessing how big the class will be. The consensus was that there couldn’t be more than 10 total people in the class, because seriously, how many people are as retarded as we are and want to become a BBQ judge? Well the answer to that question is 60. The class was packed. People came from Iowa, Indiana, Canada and all across Michigan to attend this class. It’s safe to say I was taken aback.
The class was being held in the activity center of a church with a bunch of tables of 6 set up in front of a dry erase board. We were introduced to the leader of the class, a gruff but nice southern gentleman outfitted in a Canadian Tuxedo. He explained that barbeque was his life and his passion: “Some people golf, some people ski, my wife and I…well we barbeque. We enter barbeque contests 30 weekends out of the year and I teach these classes the rest of the time. We love it.” Obviously.
He started by extolling the benefits of the KCBS and noted that there are 2 sitting State Supreme Court justices that are members. Then he defined what barbeque entails, saying that true barbeque involves cooking through indirect heat. Then he started to lose me by going into the different barbeque methods: “Pretty much anything goes as long as it’s indirect heat. You got your Oklahoma Joe’s method, your Jambo Pit, your Big Green Egg, your pellet cookers, or you can do it like Ronnie K’s Smoke On The Water and use cook shacks, standard Weber’s, coal houses or the good ol’ smokers.” Uhhh, what? I looked around to see if anyone knew what the hell he was talking about, and to my surprise, people were actually nodding their heads in recognition!
He went on to explain that competitive BBQ consists of 4 categories: chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket. For each category, a competitor fills up a Styrofoam box with 6 separate pieces of meat (6 pieces of chicken in one box, 6 ribs in another, etc.). Competitors have the option of surrounded the meat with a garnish. Each judge then rates the entries on appearance, taste and tenderness on a scale of 2 to 9, with 9 being “excellent” and 2 being “inedible.”
It became pretty apparent pretty quickly, that I was a stranger in a strange land. The instructor and many of my classmates were throwing out terms I’d never heard of and cracking inside jokes about the better-known BBQ competitors and their methods. Many of the other people taking the class wanted to start competing in events that KCBS judged, so they were asking very specific questions about shit I couldn’t care less about. Like what constitutes pooling or puddling of sauce (which involves creating an area for “dipping sauce” and is a huge no-no when competing and is punished with a disqualification), what types of garnish can and can’t be used (“don’t even think about red-tipped cabbage, because it’s not allowed”), and if rib tips can be submitted in the ribs category (“a rib isn’t a rib if it doesn’t have a bone in it, so you’re not gonna win with rib tips if that’s what you’re thinking”).
People were not shy about asking stupid questions and didn’t seem to notice the instructor roll his eyes whenever he had to field the really stupid ones. It seemed like people kept getting hung up on how to rate the food and what they should factor in.
The instruction did not hesitate on setting us straight:
Q: How do we determine what is the amount of tenderness?
A: It should feel good in your mouth.
Q: Is there anything specific you look for in excellent barbeque?
A: It should be an emotional experience. You should be willing to drive to Milwaukee to get some barbeque that good.
Q: How much should we factor in the flavor of the barbeque sauce?
A: Did I say anything about this being a sauce competition?
Q: Should we rank an entry lower if they decide not to garnish the presentation box?
A: This is a meat contest not a garnish contest.
Q: Will the contestants know who is judging their entries and will we know whose food we’re judging?
A: It’s a double blind judging system. So you don’t have to worry about anyone coming after you with a gun if you rate them low.
Now it may sound like this guy was joking around about being chased with a gun and that his gruff demeanor was just an act. It wasn’t. He kind of reminded me of Wilford Brimley in The Firm or in the Seinfeld episode where he’s the United States Postmaster General – basically this guy didn’t fuck around. If he was assuring us that we wouldn’t be chased by a contestant with a gun for giving someone poor marks, it’s most likely because at one point a judge was chased by a contestant with a gun and that he has made the necessary changes to the judging process to prevent the threat of gun violence from happening again.
After everyone’s questions were answered, they finally let us dig into some good ol’ barbeque. They took us through a mock BBQ competition and all of us were able to test and rank the four types of entries. We tested and rated three different chicken entries, three rib entries, two pulled pork entries, and two brisket entries. It was a ton of food and a lot of it was really, really good. But the fuckers around me were acting like they were sitting at the judges’ table for Top Chef or some shit. They were being ridiculously picky and really low-balling the scores. You’d think someone who cleaned their plate and was licking sauce off their fingers would rate the food a little better than “average.” It quickly became apparent that the people who were judging like assholes were the ones who planned on entering BBQ competitions in the upcoming year and were just trying to come off as knowledgeable. It didn’t work.
Wilford Brimley helped direct us a bit on how lenient and strict we should be with our rankings and then took the final few minutes of the class to peddle some KCBS merchandise and announce upcoming BBQ competitions in our area. After a final check for any remaining questions, he led us in taking the aforementioned oath. We had done it; we were now official KCBS judges and eligible to experience all the fame and prestige that came with that title.
It was a long day, but the class did not disappoint. With just a 6-hour investment and a nominal one-time fee, my friends and I were able to ensure that we have the ability and opportunity to not only eat a shitload of free barbeque, but to give our opinion on that food and have people care. It’s okay to be jealous.
I cannot wait for you to come over this summer when I am cooking hot dogs on the grill, only to have you knock over the grill in disgust.
Or perhaps you will take a bite of chicken, swirl it around in your mouth, and spit it into a small plastic bag lining your chest pocket.
Either way, I fully expect this conversation to take place...
Grodfather: How's yer burger?
J Funk: Meh! If you're trying to bore me, you've succeeded.
Grodfather: Thanks. What do I owe ya?