I am sitting on a boat indoors. I’m in a large marine showroom, in Pensacola, Florida, where they are holding a high-brow culinary competition cookoff. I am on this pontoon because I am an introvert and I’m hiding even though, technically, I’m one of the contest judges.
Of course, it’s bad luck to sit on a boat that’s on dry land. Any sailor will tell you. Even so, I have no choice but to sit aboard because there is nowhere else to put my beverage.
This is a huge party. There are hundreds of guests milling around, weaving between showroom yachts, holding plates, sipping adult beverages, and exchanging business cards like people do at trade shows.
I am not good at this kind of professional socialization because—and I think I already mentioned this—I’m an introvert.
PARTY GUEST: Hi, I’m Jim, I sell insurance for Mutual of Sheboygan. Here’s my card. So what do you do?
ME: I’m a writer, what about you? What do you do?
GUEST (staring at me flatly): Insurance.
Right now, a DJ is playing Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell In Love,” and the aroma of food is everywhere. I’m watching the whole soirée safely from the pontoon cockpit with my pal, Steve, captain of the Pensacola Police Department. Another introvert and fellow competition judge.
We both know we should be down there with the rest of the mass of extroverts, yucking it up. But this would require physically leaving our pontoon. So here we are.
The pontoon we have selected tonight is a Scout Luxury Center Console model. This is not your granddaddy’s pontoon. This boat has a maximum of 350 horsepower, comes with two full-sized electronic lounge chairs, and is approximately the same price as the Jefferson Memorial.
This is a very different pontoon than the kind from my childhood. My uncle Ray Ray used to patrol Lake Martin in a vessel he named the “Nautical Seafarer.” For short, we called it the “Nausea.”
His ship had duct tape on the seats and a sun canopy made from salvaged Tyvek plywood wrap. The steering wheel was a pair of vice clamps attached to the busted steering column and his radio only played Duane, Greg, and Skynyrd.
But anyway, Steve and I are happy on our boat, people-watching. We don’t say much to each other because that is how introverts hang out. Introverts don’t need many words.
“You see that?” Steve might say.
And conversation-wise, we’re good to go for another few months.
Consequently, the reason I am at this culinary cookoff is because this is part of Egg Fest, an annual barbecue competition I participate in. And each year—this just shows you how off-kilter the nation is—they keep asking me to be a competition judge.
Truthfully, it’s humiliating to know nothing about food but to keep pretending like you do. It’s even worse when some hopeful young chef’s hopes and dreams hinge upon your judgement call.
The competition goes like this: The chef hands you a plate with their steaming contest entry, then they look at you with doe eyes while you prepare to critique it.
After tasting their concoction, you are expected to make a culinary-informed and perspectivally balanced food critique.
“Mmmmm,” is one of my official critiques.
Over the years, some of the barbecue competition chefs have often tried to break conventions by preparing whacky, cutting-edge dishes with unusual ingredient combinations that would make your granny shoot a kidney stone.
“This dish,” one chef might announce, “is tomato-pumpkin birthday cake, topped with a fish sauce glaze and horseradish purée.”
And you, as a qualified judge, are expected to eat this.
Fact is, I’m not qualified to be a food critic. All I really know how to do is take a bite and frown thoughtfully. In reality, I’m too nice to give bad judgements, even if the food tastes like a boiled bowling shoe. So usually I just give every contestant five stars.
This year, however, I’m not allowed to do that. Because this is not how competitions work. These culinary entrants have worked too hard to be judged halfheartedly by a guy who puts ketchup on his macaroni and cheese.
Enter my wife.
My wife is a co-judge this year. And by “co-judge” I mean “don’t make me spit my beer.” Because my wife doesn’t “co” do anything. Since we’ve been married, for example, I have only driven my vehicle only once inasmuch as whenever we’re together, she drives.
In the realm of food my wife has lots of credibility. She is a trained chef de cuisine with decades of professional experience, and a proud graduate of the Faulkner State culinary school. Also, she is a Scorpio, which means sometimes she bosses kitchen staffers around by use of surgically sharp German cutlery.
My wife does not mess around when it comes to food. This is a woman who will tell you what she thinks.
“You call this sewage a soufflé?” is one of her official critiques.
All in all, this cutthroat gastronomic world is too uncomfortable for an easygoing guy like me. Which is why I have casually wandered away from the loud party, happily watching the festivities from afar. Introverting.
I’ll be on this pontoon if anyone needs me.