An Inside Outsider

Millie Rambis warned me that, “They usually don’t let anyone from the outside into the judging tent, but since you’re from the outside maybe they’ll make an exception.” I was writing about the competition at the invitation of the Columbia, Missouri, Convention and Visitors Bureau, but “from the outside” sounded ominous.

Award Trophies: Grand Champion & Reserve Champion Trophies are hand painted vintage guitars

An Inside Outsider: An Exclusive at the Roots, Blues and BBQ Festival

The Kansas City BBQ Society does not allow observers inside judging tents until one Philadelphia chef and writer was given an exclusive scoop.

Millie Rambis warned me that, “They usually don’t let anyone from the outside into the judging tent, but since you’re from the outside maybe they’ll make an exception.” The very affable Millie, an event planner at Columbia’s main music venues, the Blue Note and Mo Jo’s, both owned by Festival impresario Richard King, has worked for the past year as BBQ Competition Coordinator and served as my liaison for two days of interviews and observations. From the “outside” sounded ominous, yet I guess it worked.

Fifth Annual Columbia, MO, BBQ Competition

Since midnight, surrounding the white tent that will house more than 70 certified judges, 60 teams have been diligently concentrating on preparations for the Fifth Annual Barbecue competition which is an integral component of Columbia, MO’s Roots, Blues and BBQ Festival – warming cookers with their own combinations of woods and charcoal, trimming briskets, brining chicken, applying rubs to pork shoulders and getting very little sleep.

Judge Ron Pinchott from Milwaukee tells me that, “Teams can consist of everyone from a basic laborer to a CEO. BBQ bridges all areas and genres. The competition circuit starts in February and goes to November all around the country. Some teams make their living at it.”

Bill Watkins was Columbia’s city manager, as well as being a certified BBQ judge, when the Festival was first conceived five years ago. He was an enthusiastic supporter and instrumental in city participation. “The original organizers wanted a unique event. They not only wanted to bring in the best blues music, but they wanted other things to attract people and BBQ is this All American event.” Attendance each year averages 60,000 nationwide.

All certified by the KC BBQ society

All the judges are certified by the Kansas City Barbecue Society having completed a basic course and, when time dictates, refresher classes. Some are Master Judges having scored over 30 contests and participated themselves in competitions. Certification can be achieved as young as 16 years old. Present today were judges from Wisconsin, Oklahoma and throughout Missouri. One was a University of Missouri journalism student who became a judge at 15 – just before the new minimum age requirement went into the rules. He was here with his dad.

It’s not an easy task. Barbecue is as regional and individualistic a preparation method as food can get. In central Missouri sweet tomato based sauces are favored while just a couple hundred miles east in Memphis they prefer spice rubs over sauces. In the deep South mustard based sauces are the norm and in the Carolinas they like a vinegar tang. Even wood preferences change: hickory, pecan, apple, oak, cherry and, in the southwest, mesquite.

Linda Schowalter, certified judge and responsible for the computer inputing and calculation of the scores says, “In the training, we try not to tell them how the scoring’s done, but what to look for. But to be honest, if someone were to turn in a mustard based sauce it probably won’t be scored very high because the judges here aren’t used to that. You talk to the different teams and they’ll use the seasonings of the region they grew up in, but if they travel out of their area they’ll change.” In competition they have “to please the judges.”

The Judging Criteria

Prior to the start of judging a recording summarizing the KC BBQ Society’s rules is played followed by a formal recitation of the Society’s Oath administered this day by Mike McMillan, official representative of the Society and chief supervising judge. Texture, moisture, tenderness and ease of pulling meat off the bone are emphasized.There are reminders that smoked chicken may appear pink near the bone, yet if it pulls away easily it’s properly cooked. Because of this issue I noticed a number of contestants deboning their chicken when I conducted interviews the night before. Thighs were favored because of fat and dark meat content (moisture).

Ron Pinchott’s take is, “Try to be open minded. Sometimes people put too much emphasis on presentation. We always remind ourselves we’re judging the meat, not the garnish and the sauce.” They have to mentally divorce the seasonings from the methodology.

Double Blind Judging

The procedure’s known as double blind judging. Each contestant’s styrofoam box arrives with its team number – no names – which is immediately covered by the supervising judges with a second sticker containing the teams corresponding computer score sheet number. To keep taste buds clean, no judge may smoke during the process and they freshen their palates with saltine crackers and water. No spouses or other household members may sit at the same table. Silence is enforced during judging and judges pledge, among other criteria, to have had no prior contacts with contestants that day.

Tasting the competition

Tasting the entries was not open to the general public because of Department of Health regulations, but since I was an official observer, I was allowed to sample the leftovers along with the volunteer assistants. The smoke flavors were surprisingly understated, almost subtle – not at all like one just walked out of a burning log cabin.

•The chicken, both boneless thighs and legs, were moist, tender and sweet with sauce.

• Ribs were succulent, meaty and fell off their bones. My first sample’s sweetness was complimented by an even smokiness. Yet another sample surprised me with a spicy hot pepper rub that worked well with its deep smoky flavor.

•Pork could be presented sliced, pulled or cubed. All samples were very tender and ranged from sweet to salty to salty/pepper spicy. Generally they were less smoky than ribs.

•The brisket was my personal favorite. Coming from the East Coast I’m used to braising this cut of beef. But here the fat is trimmed, rubbed with spices and/or sauces and smoked for up to 14 hours. The slices are firm – no flaking like braising can cause – the smoke flavor is subtle and the texture is butter soft. Mike McMillan commented, “This spoils even us for BBQ brisket. Most restaurants can’t afford the prep and cooking time.”

And the Winners

Grand Champion: Political Pork ($2500 plus invitation to the American Royal)

Reserve Champion: Blazin’ Blues ($1500 prize)

1st place in each category: $750
•Chicken: Spicewine Ironworks (perfect score)
•Ribs: D2 BBQ
•Pork: Muddy BBQ
•Brisket: TrueQue (perfect score)
•Dessert: Up in Smoke

And my prize was participating as the first “outsider” to get an inside look, and taste, of this hospitable and enjoyable event.