BBQ Festival Judging in Tennessee

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These barbecued spare ribs, with a bit of dipping sauce on the side, could win a contest any day.

When I was invited to judge the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Barbecue, I was like a child watching the calendar for the great event. I simply love barbecue.

Held in October, this is the crème de la crème of competitions and is hosted by Lynchburg, Tennessee, the home of Jack Daniel’s Distillery. To be invited, a barbecue team must be the top team at a regional competition, then survive a lottery of regional winners who want to compete at “The Jack.”

Teams from 36 states and 16 countries included chefs, butchers, retirees, entertainers, farmers, housewives and firefighters. The number of teams determines the number of judges. This year, 60 teams meant 60 judges at 10 judging tables.

All judges must pass the Kansas City Barbeque Society Judging Course, and the KCBS rules are extensive, covering minute details such as:

  • Entries must be six separated and identifiable portions of meat. (Later I saw an entry disqualified for not doing this.)
  • No red-tipped lettuce allowed for garnish.
  • Sauce is allowed, but may not be in a pool.

One of my first thrills as a judge was meeting Ardie Davis and Paul Kirk, deans of American barbecue.

Ardie Davis, in his trademark black bowler hat and bow tie, greeted me in the judging area. Davis started the first Barbecue Sauce Contest in his backyard in 1984. It is now part of Kansas City’s American Royal, one of the top three barbecue competitions, along with “The Jack” and the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

Paul Kirk, the “Kansas City Baron of Barbecue,” won the first Jack Daniel’s competition and since has won numerous international competitions. In response to people requesting tips on how to barbecue, he began teaching classes worldwide in 1989.

Together, Davis and Kirk wrote America’s Best Barbecue, with, as Ardie says, “hundreds of recipes from the best joints!”

In the judging area of The Jack, judges are given an apron and indelible pen, and the tradition of judges signing each others’ aprons begins. The apron becomes a “priceless” treasure. Judges consist of past winners and/or contestants, chefs, press, food writers, sponsors and barbecue aficionados.

The contest’s seven categories are Sauce, Chicken, Pork Ribs, Pork Butts/Shoulders, Brisket, Cook’s Choice, Home Cookin’ from the Homeland and Dessert.

If you ate an ounce of everything you judged, it would add up to around two pounds, so you have to pace yourself. Six judges sit at each table with a judging plate, judging slip, pencil, napkins/paper towels, water and crackers in front of each. No utensils, though. All judging is done with your fingers.

During the KCBS class for judges, instructors lean toward eating barbecue with bare hands. Forks or tongs are allowed to remove entries from containers. Judges are cautioned against using scented towelettes, alcohol and carbonated beverages before and during judging.

The procedure is the same for every category. Table captains read off contestants’ numbers, as judges write the number on judging plate and slip. The first contestant’s entry is displayed for appearance judging. Next, the container is passed. Judges take a piece, taste, and judge for flavor and texture. Scores can’t be changed.

While the judging continues, thousands of people visit booths, sample barbecue and compete in games. Music, contra dancers, barrel racing and a homemade pie auction complete the festive experience.

As everyone awaits the awards, each winner receives thunderous applause. Since judges have no idea who prepared which entry, the awards are a complete surprise to everyone.

— Libby Platus