On Saturday I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of judging my first officially sanctioned barbecue competition. I was one of an elite few hand-selected judges (okay, actually one of 54 judges and I had practically begged for the opportunity) at the first annual BBQ Capital Cook-off in Lexington, NC.
The event drew more than 50 teams from across the southeast, including a half dozen or so from the Lexington area. Under the rules of Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) sanctioned events, the teams competed across four categories: chicken, pork ribs, pork butt/shoulder and beef brisket. Prizes were awarded for the grand champion, the best cumulative score across the four categories, as well as category-specific winners. If you actually care about the details of the event, including who won, read this article.
I thoroughly enjoyed the judging experience, especially meeting a bunch of friendly and dedicated barbecue enthusiasts. It’s definitely a different world out there on the “barbecue trail,” as members of the BBQ competition tribe call it, and I enjoyed being let into the world for a few hours. I was among the younger judges, but it was a more diverse group than I expected: quite a few women, not all of whom were dragged there by their spouses, as well as people from as far away as Alabama and even, gulp, San Francisco. There was a real sense of camraderie among the judges and other volunteers; one big, smoked meat loving family. From what little I observed of the teams competing, the camraderie is equally strong among cooking teams.
Despite the good time I had, I am not yet a competitive BBQ convert. But it’s not because of the quality of the food. The 24 samples I tried (six in each of the four categories, per KCBS judging protocol) were as a whole excellent–most were better than good restaurant barbecue and some were exceptionally good, with just a few subpar. Plus, I wholeheartedly support the KCBS focus on wood-cooked barbecue, as gas and electric cookers are banned. Yet I don’t quite buy into the concept of turning barbecue–which to me is all about enjoying oneself among friends in a laidback atmosphere–into a competition governed by a myriad of bureaucratic rules (e.g., a strict policy of disqualification for entries featuring garnishes other than green leaf lettuce, parsley or cilantro). It’s not that I begrudge anyone the thrill of competing, but I’m not sure it is the scene for me. On the other hand, I sure do like getting the opportunity to sample a bunch of delicious barbecue so I’m not ruling out giving judging another shot…