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.