I was recently invited to participate as a guest judge for the Pensacola EggFest barbecue competition, an event which raises lots of money for charity, and spikes my LDL into the critical zone.
This was my fourth consecutive year as an expert judge, although to be quite honest, the extent of my official barbecue knowledge is, hey, barbecue tastes good.
That’s not to say that I’m not qualified in the area of smoked meat. I am, inasmuch as I eat so much barbecue my gastroenterologist has disowned me.
Either way, competitive barbecue critiquing is tough work. Yesterday, for example, I showed up to Blue Wahoo Stadium bright and early before the competition, ready for a long day. No sooner had my fellow judges arrived than we were all required to sample peanut-butter flavored bourbon from a contestant who also happened to be running for public office.
“Bottoms up, y’all,” said the politician, who was already repouring a few cups.
This is the kind of dedication you find among our committed barbecue experts. And this is exactly why the EggFest competition is one of the highlights of my year.
Because this isn’t a pretentious contest with snooty judges carrying around food-grade thermometers shoved in their rear pockets. This is an easygoing contest with loud music and the occasional competitor whose breath fumes are highly flammable.
This is nothing like the other barbecue contests I’ve judged before. In the past I have had the opportunity to be a guest official for a few uppercrust barbecue competitions alongside actual Kansas City Barbecue Society certified judges. One team I was with was like the IRS of the competitive barbecue world.
I remember we judges had to walk around the fairgrounds in tight V-formation, refusing to smile or wave at any entrants. We weren’t even allowed to have secret code names.
We were expected to evaluate dishes based on texture, marinade salinity, bone-in guidelines, plate presentation, and overall mouth feel.
Then, as if that weren’t enough, we were expected to wash it down with plain bottled water.
But at EggFest all the judges are laid back, and most come to the contest with the basic culinary understanding that, listen, this is a barbecue.
Thus, we officials spent our weekend waltzing through a maze of tents, eating, and cheerfully raising money for a good cause. We wore our giant sun hats and official badges, carried our clipboards, and high-fived each other when one of us actually pronounced a complex culinary term without assistance, such as “croquette.”
We met chefs from all over the southeast, the Midwest, and whatever region you call Texas. We ate enough cholesterol to clog a residential septic tank. We laughed a lot.
Our guidelines were pretty relaxed. We expected each chef we evaluated to follow two primary rules when it came to his or her entry dish:
They had to (1) Prepare it on a Big Green Egg—a specialized ceramic barbecue grill; and (2) They had to know the lyrics to the chorus of Dave Mason’s 1977 hit single “We Just Disagree.”
Most of these chefs prepared traditional barbecue consisting of slow-smoked pork shoulders or beef briskets. Which was pretty easy to judge. But a few branched out and served cutting-edge culinary concoctions that were downright frightening to my middle-aged tastebuds.
One competitor served what appeared to be caviar over brazed shark meat.
One of my fellow judges, who also happened to be my wife, looked at her hunk of shark meat and said, “We’re gonna need a bigger beer.”
Speaking of which. Many contestants tried to stack the odds in their favor by serving potent adult beverages to the judges. Some competitors got so brazen about persuading judges that they even had an amateur mixologist on their team whose specific role was to “grease” officials with exotic drinks.
Certainly, you could call all this an act of bribery, but again, none of us judges were concerned about this because, frankly, we were too busy trying to figure out what our secret code names were going to be.
All in all, we took our judging duties very seriously, and it was some of the most fun I’ve had all year. And when the day was finally finished, and the winner was selected, I can honestly say with complete conviction, that after the peanut-butter flavored bourbon I have very little memory of what actually happened.
Colleen Shabluk - November 16, 2021 11:05 am
Your descriptions are so well executed that make readers feel they’re along with you on every adventure. A read by Sean Dietrich is a terrific way to begin the day. I’m hooked.
Ernie Kelly - November 16, 2021 11:30 am
Sounds like a lot of fun. I loved “We’re gonna need a bigger beer.”
Jay Wright - November 16, 2021 12:06 pm
I read your posts every day. This was right up there with the best I’ve read. Developed a powerful thirst. Also your phrase about flammable breath fumes took me way back to the early ’50’s. I was my grandfather’s pride & joy because I was his first grandson [first 3 were all girls]. He ran a service station near his house in rural GA & had lots of buddies who drop in and share tastings of their latest homemade brew. His breath was ALWAYS flammable. I know because he’d rock me on his knee & play with me even when no one in the house would speak to him. An excellent swimmer, he drown – drunk – when I was 12. No one really missed him except me. My most vivid memories of him begin with thoughts of that fermented breath.
Carry on, brother.
Angel Alexander - November 16, 2021 12:15 pm
Sean. I hope your sense of humor takes you a long way. I always loOk forward to your articles.the peanut butter flavor drink sounds pretty horrendous. Take lots of Alka seltzer!.
Stacey Wallace - November 16, 2021 12:48 pm
Thanks, Sean. However, you haven’t eaten the best ribs. Our nephew Luke smokes them. I tried to talk him in to opening a rib joint, but his wife, our niece Lindsay, nixed the idea. Luke’s a very successful mechanical engineer in Birmingham, so he didn’t go for the idea either. Too bad.
gwenthinks - November 16, 2021 12:51 pm
spot on! Good ole boys & bar-b-q!
Dorothy Holloway - November 16, 2021 1:25 pm
My kind of barbecue 😊
Jan - November 16, 2021 1:27 pm
Sounds like lots of fun! Thanks for the new insight on barbecue cook-offs!
Paul McCutchen - November 16, 2021 1:28 pm
Jack Daniel’s used to have a bar b que contest every year. If they still have it you need to go. I went one year and had a ball.
Margaret Richey - November 16, 2021 1:36 pm
Who does the illustrations? They are terrific.
HH - November 16, 2021 1:57 pm
We met chefs from all over the southeast, the Midwest, and whatever region you call Texas.
You were right; it’s just called Texas. No other qualifiers needed.
I need to buy a barbecue grill. What do you think about that Big Green Egg?
Nan - November 17, 2021 5:50 am
Thanks for commenting about Texas – you saved me the trouble! Good column Sean!
Cathy M - November 16, 2021 2:22 pm
That peanut butter bourbon is pretty good. I was pleasantly surprised. Glad you and Jamie had fun. You deserved that❤️
Shelton A. - November 16, 2021 3:33 pm
You should try down-east NC style barbecue. It’s mighty fine. Not sure how peanut butter flavored bourbon would go with it though.
Dean - November 16, 2021 3:58 pm
Sounds like a fun barbecue to be at and yes Jack Daniels still has a bar q every year.
Steve McCaleb - November 16, 2021 4:13 pm
Memphis In May. Hog Heaven on earth.
Linda Moon - November 16, 2021 7:21 pm
Tough work….yeah, right. I’d like that job of sampling the peanut butter bourbon, tough or not. Your wife’s suggestion for bigger beer sounds good to me, and I’ll be re-reading this post from time to time and imagine that I was there with You Guys!
Ann - November 17, 2021 10:24 am
Sandy - November 17, 2021 4:34 pm
I have enjoyed your blog until now. You called the KCBS judges snooty. I beg your pardon and would like a retraction. My late husband was alone of the official KCBS judges for many many years and there was an of snooty in him or any of his friends. I can tell you more but I guess you see you have hurt feelings and legacies of trained impartial judges with integrity and knowledge. I am disappointed in the comments you made.
Larry Wall - November 17, 2021 5:34 pm
Get a grip, lady. If you have read many of Sean’s posts you should have realized that he uses satire equally to evoke a grin but never to actually offend a person or a group. He has joked about several groups that I either am or have been affiliated with without getting my drawers in a wad. Besides, I would guess that there likely has been one or two KCBS judges that would believe they are somebody special more than they are. It just happens. So say “I am sorry, Sean” and continue enjoying life and reading Sean of the South.
Robert Dean - November 18, 2021 8:38 pm
Great stuff Sean. And your comments were also good. Bob Dean (Tiffany Dimas’ dad).
Dawn Ritz - November 18, 2021 8:47 pm
This is such a fun event!! We are so sorry we missed it this year–would love to meet you and Jamie!! Maybe next year…