How to Judge a BBQ Contest
"Smoke is like salt and pepper to me," Stone observes. "I need nuance, moisture. One lost art is cooking the skin of a chicken. You have to cook chicken to render it delicate so that the skin is easy to bite through. This means seasoning chicken in just the right way. Remember: judges get one bite, typically, so a lot of flavor has to be in that bite."
The Kingsford Invitational is unique in that it aims to take the champions from all regions and rate them with attempted parity, despite disparate scoring systems.
Is it fair? "If we win, it’s fair," said a chuckling member of the Motley Que Crew, part of the chosen eight at Kingsford.
An Insider’s Look at Barbecue Judging at the Kingsford Invitational
There are four main categories at Kingsford: chicken, ribs, pork shoulder/pork butt/whole hog, and brisket. For the judging, each dish is placed with no garnish in a simple to-go box.
"It’s meat in a box," said judge Brad Orrison, "but it’s artwork, glazed, sticky, orange barbecue meat from heaven!"
Judges cleaned their palates with saltine crackers and grapes between 50 to 60 overall bites.
Harry Soo, one of the more charismatic and animated of the Kingsford judges, wildly gesticulated about his love of barbecue. His website, SlapYoDaddyBBQ.com, gives some indication of Soo's humor, but he is an engineer by vocation and an award-winning BBQ Grand Champion by avocation. "We are looking for creativity outside the norm," he noted about the judging process. "Bright flavors, not dull ones."
When addressing the appearance of a dish, for example, Soo explained, "You eat with your eyes, but the brain knows not what the tongue wants, so judging can be tricky." He also had advice for the competitors, indicating that they would win or lose in the last 15 minutes of the contest so he cautioned that they need to get a good night’s sleep before the big day and pace themselves for those last critical 15 minutes.
"We sleep like homeless people for these contests," said Soo, with a beaming smile, "and we spend our life savings just to come here. Barbecue is therapy for us." For that reason he believes that pitmasters need to adapt to what judges want across all contests, given that flavor profiles are coming from the region, the individual, the county, and the state.
Participants also need to deliver in all conditions, whether it be rain, snow, or wind. Furthermore, they must have persistence and consistency yet variability from contest to contest. A lot of barbecue nowadays also makes the mistake of saturating the meat with sauce, which should be avoided.
"The flavor profile has changed and so has the competition. My dad, for example, couldn’t win today," said Kingsford judge Amy Mills, known as The Heiress, who grew up with her famous restaurateur father, Mike Mills of 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro, Ill., with whom she co-wrote Peace, Love and Barbecue.
What are Mills’ main criteria for judging?
"It looked good, tasted good, and you wanted to eat more." She also said that there should be just a kiss of smoke in the dish because after a certain point, meat doesn’t absorb smoke anymore.
The emotion of the contestants cannot be forgotten either. Closer to turn-in time, words became limited. Facial expressions changed.
"Don’t try to engage them in conversation. There’s a lot of heart and money and pulling of trailers to get here," said Stone. "It’s taken seriously."
Crowning a Winner
This year’s winner of the Kingsford Invitational Barbecue Competition was Yazoo’s Delta Q led by Melissa Cookston, who not only won the $5,000 One Bite Challenge on the first day of competition but also won three of the four Kingsford categories (except for chicken), making them the landslide Grand Champion with a prize of $50,000 in the competition’s inaugural year.
"The Hedonic scoring system adapted by Meathead and Dr. Harry Lawless is based upon reputable science and experience and was ideal for this small contest," said veteran judge and barbecue author Ardie Davis, of the book America’s Best Ribs. "I liked the one-number score plus the opportunity to discuss each entry after we finished scoring. The judges gave serious attention to the job at hand, and in my view we rendered a fair and impartial judgment."
Clearly, bringing subjectivity like taste and appearance¬¬ to a contest means that judging leans closer to an art than a science. Nevertheless, these sharp Kingsford Invitational judges are probably the closest to "taste scientists" around with their historical palates, BBQ champions themselves at the top of their game judging their peers, also at their apices. As evidenced by the new scoring system, the judging of barbecue is constantly adapting as the sport grows.
It seems like this is one situation where it’s maybe good that the smoke doesn’t clear.
Mark Damon Puckett has written for Saveur and Greenwich Magazine. He is the author of The Reclusives, YOU with The Ill-usives, and The Killer Detective Novelist (October 2012), all available on amazon.com and bn.com. Please visit him at www.markdamonpuckett.com.