Day in the life of a traveling BBQ judge

Day in the life of a traveling BBQ judge

I awoke early one Saturday morning, ate a banana and had a glass of orange juice, and headed out the door in search of top notch competition barbecue. This quest had me going to Huntsville for the Shotgun Fred’s BBQ Showdown. It is the closest Kansas City BBQ Society event of the year, and I was happy it was only a two-hour drive from home. I arrived at 10 a.m. for the judges’ meeting and just in time to judge the first side dish – beans. It is an ancillary part of the competition, but still one the cooks take seriously, so the judging is done with the same professionalism as the four main categories. There was one that stood head and shoulders from the rest. It had a good smokiness and just the right amount of bacon. The texture of the beans was silky smooth and it seemed to be every judge’s favorite at the table.

At 11 a.m., the main event started with chicken. We received five entries that were thighs and one that was a leg. Overall, the chicken was not strong at my table. The ones that were cooked correctly had so much sauce on them I couldn’t taste the meat. The other entries were just subpar for one reason or another. The good news was my favorite category was next – ribs. The rib entries were a mixed bag. There were two really good competition ribs that were cooked properly, two that were chewy and undercooked and two that were tough and overcooked. The good news is the ones that were cooked properly looked perfect and both had great flavor. Overall, a very typical showing in the rib category.

The third category is typically my least favorite – pork. However, I was amazed at the pork entries. All six looked great in the box, cooked well and had great flavor. I gave all 8’s and 9’s in one category for the first time in my judging career. The interesting thing is there were many different flavor profiles – some savory, some emphasizing the natural sweetness of pork – but all were very tasty and showed each pitmaster’s skillset. There were some great examples of money muscle and pulled pork. I would welcome this level of offerings every time I judge. 

The final category in the main competition is always brisket. Typically, it is the category I am most critical of, but again, I was pleasantly surprised by a couple of the entries. In fact, I gave my first all 9’s to a brisket entry in a KCBS event. It was not the best brisket I have ever tasted, but it was a close-to-perfect competition entry. The presentation was flawless, as was the doneness of the meat. The flavor was spot on as well. I knew before I bit into the slice if I gave it a 9 it would be my first ever-perfect score, but there were no weaknesses. It was a very savory slice with a nice balance of salt and pepper. Not sure I would want to eat an entire plate of it, but for “one bite barbecue,” it was darn near flawless.

Thankfully my table did not get drawn for the desert judging, as I was already past my comfort level and still had to make it back that afternoon without falling asleep at the wheel. Fortunately, I did make it home by 5 p.m. to enjoy a nice sunset with my family and neighbors … happily skipping dinner.


Patrick Bell can be reached at patbell [at] bar-b-curious [dot] com.