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Judging the Jack

When I tell people that I am going to be judging a barbecue competition, I always get that smile and a wink. Few casual observers of the strange world of competition barbecue think that judging is difficult or merits serious consideration. Try explaining that to the competitors, particularly those who make a living on the competition circuit.

To better explain the process, let me walk you through an opportunity, I had to judge the Jack. Otherwise known as the Jack Daniel’s Invitational Barbeque Competition this competition is considered by some to be the world championship of barbecue. To earn an invitation, a team must win a state or national championship during the season. This year’s Jack was the 24th annual event in Lynchburg, Tennessee where 87 teams competed, with participants from every state in the union and teams from as far away as Australia.

There has to be a judge for each team, and each judge scores the entries from 6 (sometimes 7) groups. At the Jack, there are seven categories, with the traditional Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) sanctioned entries for chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket. In addition to these, the Jack has awards for sauce, chef’s choice, and dessert. It is the Chef’s Choice and Dessert categories that offer the best opportunities for creativity since any creative wild card can be submitted.

On Saturday the 27th, I arrived at Wiseman Park on a cold and rain threatened morning to check in at the judge’s table, collect my souvenirs apron, and silver pen and wait for the start of the judge’s meeting. Judges spend this time walking around collecting autographs on their aprons from the other judges. Some people have more than 20 aprons collected over the years. To show you how important these mementos are (fully covered in signatures) before I could work up the nerve (or audacity) to ask for Mike Mills’ signature, he asked for mine first.

The Jack stands out among all the other hundreds of barbecue competitions in those legends of barbecue, local, and even national celebrities, line up to judge along with everyone else who is either lucky enough like me to be invited or who gets on the list early enough to volunteer. This time, country star Keith Anderson joined Artie Davis (aka Reamus Powers), Mike Mills, Famous Dave Anderson, and me at the judging tables.

At each table, six people sit to judge while a seventh serves as table captain. At the Jack, there are two co-captains to help keep everything moving smoothly and to pass extra food off to the gathering crowd. This is a barbecue competition, so there are no knives and forks, and the plate is a thick piece of laminated paper with printed squares for where the food is placed.

Each category of food has a specific turn-in time, and contestants must bring their entry to the turn-in table before the clock runs out. On a cold day, like it was in Lynchburg this year, the secret is to keep the food as warm as possible and to turn it in as late as possible so that there is still a chance that hot meats will reach the judge’s table before turning cold.

The white polystyrene turn-in boxes are then renumbered by the turn-in staff, sorted into groups of six, and taken by the table captains to the judging tables. After filling out the judging forms with the box numbers, the contents were evaluated on their appearance. Once all the judges have written down their scores, the boxes are disseminated, and each judge takes a sample. The entries are then judged for taste and texture.

According to the KCBS rules used by the Jack, the scoring system scales entries from 1 to 9 with a score of one leading to disqualification. A score of two would be something that you wouldn’t want to put in your mouth, and nine would be something you wouldn’t want to take out. Six is considered average. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to try competition-level barbecue, I would put the typical fast-casual barbecue joint in around a three and the best barbecue restaurants around a seven. The Jack has the best of the best, and I gave a few nines and several eights and sevens.

Scores are tallied with each criterion (appearance, taste, and texture) multiplied by a complex number to reduce the likelihood of a tie and to weigh the scoring in favor of taste first, texture second, and appearance last. Once the scores are gathered and adequately counted, winners are announced by naming the top 10 teams. From the individual category scores, a total performance score is generated to call the overall winner or grand champion.

The Jack does not have the biggest prizes in barbecue, and the $30,000 is divided among the top-scoring teams in each category with the biggest prize going to the overall grand champion. With our aprons signed, an oath taken, and the rules hammered into our heads, it was time to judge. The first category was barbecue sauce, a complicated item to judge since so many competition teams use Blues Hog BBQ Sauce as their base.  Also, all there is to judge is a small pool of sauce on your “plate.” The winner here is probably the team who doctored and thickened their Blues Hog sauce.

Entries are turned in every half hour and after barbecue sauce came the Chef’s Choice Entry. This category must contain Jack Daniel’s and is usually the main dish. Our table got three entries, including a whole crown of pork and a sauerbraten-inspired flank steak dish. All of these arrived on large platters, and the judges were expected to taste everything on them. The pork dish included vegetables and stuffing and was simply one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth. It was at this point that I realized that I wasn’t merely hungry; I was famished from having skipped breakfast in preparation for the hours of eating. I had to force myself to remember judging rule one, pace yourself.

In a typical four-entry competition, a judge can taste 24 samples of meat. If a judge were to eat two ounces of each entry, that would equal three pounds of meat. Add water and saltine crackers to clean the palate, and you could eat more than many stomachs can handle. Pacing is vital, particularly here where our table tasted 38 entries.

Once the judging slips were turned in, the table captains took their samples and passed the rest among the crowd that gathered to watch the judging. From here, the real barbecue competition started, and the chicken boxes started showing up. When judging lesser competitions, it is essential to tear open the chicken to make sure that it was cooked properly, a lesson I learned years ago. At the Jack, it is safe to assume that these competitors didn’t sleep in and failed to start cooking the chicken in time to cook it through before packing it into the white boxes.

Chicken is an interesting item. At the Jack, competitors are expected to turn in white and dark meat, but at most competitions, everyone cooks chicken thighs. Most of our table sampled thighs, but there were wings and legs along with chicken breasts. Almost everyone produced a similar sampling of chicken other than the team that presented a teriyaki-style chicken breast, which was good, but not the expected barbecue flavor.

The flavor of barbecue might be difficult to tie down, but most judges will tell you that they know it when they taste it. The four main barbecue categories do not reward originality; teams are penalized for it. Here the goal is to produce the ideal version of barbecue, not something unique, so someone turning in rosemary-infused and poached chicken quarters isn’t going to score well, even if the taste and tenderness are fantastic.

From chicken, we moved to BBQ Ribs. Here we got lucky and received seven boxes instead of six due to a shortage of judges or an overabundance of teams. Ribs are easy to judge for tenderness. Simply bite down on the center of the rib straight to the bone and pull away. If the meat around the bite stays on the bone but pulls away clean, then it is perfectly tender. Fall-off-the-bone ribs will not receive a high tenderness score. Three of the seven entries on my table managed this; something I found a little surprising. As for taste, they were all very similar. On my scorecard, I gave sevens and eights. Nothing stood out as fantastic, but everything was very good; better than you will find in most barbecue joints in the country.

Due to the turn-in times and how the boxes are distributed, judges often get up between categories, stretch their legs, and seek out a porta-potty.  On this cold October day in Tennessee, I took advantage of the time to thaw out my face and hands.

By the time the “pulled” pork boxes showed up I was getting full and worried about the final entry, dessert, which is renowned for creativity, especially among the European teams who often come armed with a pastry chef. I knew that this would be tempting, so I remembered the first rule and dived into the seven samplings of pork.

It is usually called pulled pork, but increasingly teams are turning in sliced pork. The problem with pulled pork on the judge’s table is that it doesn’t hold heat, and when the weather is cold, judges are receiving something less than desirable. Again, the pork category was good. While nothing stood out as the best I have ever had, I find it difficult to remember since it was here that the food coma set in.

When the brisket finally showed up my brain was slowing down to a snail’s pace, and a good nap sounded like the best idea I had had in a long time. Brisket is similarly easy to judge for tenderness. Slices (though chopped or pulled can be turned in but generally are not) should be the thickness of a pencil and should pull apart with good springy bounce. I found most of the brisket close to perfect on tenderness though someone managed to present a tender, a pliable, yet dry slice of brisket. I’m not entirely sure how this was done.

With the brisket judged, I jumped up and walked around stamping my feet to try to get the creeping nap out of my head. One category left, and I needed a strong cup of coffee if I was going to be awake to find out who actually won this thing.

It was while I was still standing that the fuss began. The dessert entries were arriving, and our table received a foot-long barrel made entirely out of chocolate and filled with a Jack Daniel’s caramel crème. All of the dessert entries, like the sauce and chef’s choice, had to contain Jack Daniel’s. This one certainly got everyone’s attention, and people were crowding around to take pictures.

Beside the barrel, were six whipped cream-topped cups with a spoon sticking out. The cups were inscribed on the side with “Jack Daniel’s Invitational 2012”, and the spoons were made of lightly smoked chocolate. Like a dish served from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, everything was edible. Digging deep into the cups, we found a Jack Daniel’s infused cream ganache. A fantastic dish considering it was prepared in a fancy campground, though a genuinely phenomenal dish.

The other dessert entries on our table included a Jack Daniel’s upside-down cake and a set of what I would describe as gingerbread moon pies with a Jack Daniel’s cream filling.  Two days after the competition, when I was finally hungry again, it was those little gingerbread cakes that I wanted to try again. Simple, yet flavorful, I could go for another one right now.

Once the final scorecard was submitted, the discussions really started. Now is the time when the remaining judges start talking about the things that truly stood out, about the failures and successes, and the host of similarities between the entries. Judging barbecue isn’t about looking for something new and unique. It is about finding the perfect example of barbecue, that rack of ribs, or a pile of pork that would exist on Plato’s ideal plane under the sign, barbecue. Judging is as the oath calls for, an objective and subjective process of narrowing down what barbecue is. It might not be definable, but after a few competitions, you will know it when you taste it.

I want to thank Jack Daniel’s and DVL Public Relations for a great weekend in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Thanks are also owed to the cooks and staff at Miss Mary Bobo’s for a great lunch. To Goose, the best tour guide I’ve had in many years. To Jeff Arnett for allowing me to try some un-aged Rye. To Nikki and Kristen, who truly are expert cat herders.

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