What it's like eating your way through piles of meat as a barbecue judge

Mackensy Lunsford
Nashville Tennessean

I knew I had entered new territory when iceberg lettuce as a legal barbecue garnish was under debate for nearly 10 minutes.

Last week, I attended barbecue school. Rather than learning how to properly smoke meat, however, we learned how to judge competition barbecue while adhering to the rules sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. It's serious business, and for our efforts, we would be officially allowed to judge the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue and other competitive barbecue events.

The class took nearly four hours, including the time it took for us to be served several rounds of barbecue, which we judged under a bit of scrutiny. We were not to talk (I messed that one up immediately), not to text (not happening with sticky fingers anyway) and not to keep personal water bottles on the table (I only had to be reminded once).

I quickly established myself as a low scorer, a habit I broke after being asked to defend my stance at least twice, which meant calling someone's barbecue "mushy, bland and unappealing" in front of a roomful of judges in the making. I'm no Simon Cowell. But more than that, as a KCBS-certified judge, you're supposed to assume everyone's barbecue is already top-notch at a competition as prestigious as "The Jack," as it's known among barbecue cognoscenti. That means starting with a high score of 9 (there are no 10s) and knocking off points for screw-ups.

Errors could include poorly cooked meat or less obvious issues like the wrong kind of garnish. Iceberg lettuce is acceptable as long as the core has been removed. Bok choy is not, which we learned when one of the instructors surreptitiously inserted the dark green leaves in one of our boxes. As a food writer and former chef, I'm embarrassed to admit I didn't notice. I wondered if I'd get my badge after all or spend competition day watching the judges eat from the other side of the chain link fence. Yes, people do that.

Judges at the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue competition.

That people are watching — and even filming — the judges during the main event is part of the reason there's absolutely no grimacing over the sometimes shockingly sweet flavor profile of competition-style barbecue. You're also absolutely not supposed to nibble a rib from the top but rather from the side.

A sculptor and restaurateur who goes by Stretch and judged barbecue at my table while wearing a red captain's coat reminded me of the rib rule after I botched my first rib nibble. I looked around to see if anyone was watching and spotted someone filming our table from the other side of the fence. To be fair, I was sitting with some absolute legends including Chris Lilly, the head chef of the Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q competition cooking team and the winner of 17 world barbecue championships. So yeah, no one was interested in how I ate my ribs.

In case you're wondering, you eat from the side to avoid getting a mouthful of fat and not much else. You're also trying to get a better feel for how the meat pulls away from the bone. If it pulls away cleanly, it's good to go. If all of the meat falls off the bone, it's overdone. If you have to tug? That's no good, either.

As far as flavor, if you're judging a barbecue competition, you're going to find yourself faced with an awful lot of sweet meat. Brad Leighninger, a competition pitmaster and executive chef of several Gettin' Basted barbecue restaurants in Missouri, explained why.

This year, Leighninger placed at The Jack. Last year, he won the whole thing. And he did it, he said, with middle-of-the-road barbecue.

"It ends up being a tenderness contest," he said. "When I'm developing a recipe for the restaurant, I don't care if it's polarizing as long as there's a portion of people who love it. In competition barbecue, if six judges sit down and eat chicken and two don't like it, you just lost."

Sugar also helps carry salt, he said. That helps the flavor come through, even when the judges are getting palate fatigue. And yes, after tasting several international dishes, and a heap of pork, chicken, ribs and brisket, fatigue will set in.

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While Leighninger said his style is not quite as sweet as the rest of the competition 'cue can be, he does add "a little more of everything" to what he serves to judges versus customers in his restaurants.

"I'm not trying to change the flavor substantially," he said. "But I do want to make it pop since you guys aren't going to eat a lot of it."

He also said northern barbecue tends to be sweet. "Some northern teams carry that down South, so some of it is regionality, too," he said.

My sweetest bite was a chicken leg that tasted as though it was dipped in honey, and Leighninger admitted some competition bird can tend toward the saccharine, though he's not exactly sure how it evolved to get that way.

"We're all a bunch of copycats," he said, laughing.

Barbecue competitions can be expensive, and it often pays to not stand out too much from the crowd. Leighninger said it costs him around $2,000 to compete in each barbecue event, which he does around 40 times a year. He also teaches barbecue classes in the off season and coaches his students that "homogenization" is not a dirty word when it comes to the world of competitive barbecue.

"We gravitate toward what's winning," he said. Paradoxically, that doesn't necessarily mean crafting the best piece of barbecue you've ever tasted. It sometimes means making meat with the right texture and a rather unremarkable, sweet sauce. It's what the judges seem to most uniformly like. It turns out I'm a bit of an outlier.

How much meat did I eat? An uncomfortable amount. And yes, there were a few overly sweet bites I didn't love. Still, I'd happily flex my muscles as a KCBS-certified competition barbecue judge again if invited back. I just need to remember which way to eat my ribs. And I promise not to talk this time. Though I will stand up and wiggle a bit to help get all of that meat down.

The crowd seemed to like it.

Here are the top five overall winners of the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue competition.

Who won The Jack?

  1. Heavy Smoke BBQ
  2. Good Googly Goo BBQ
  3. Shiggin Ain't Easy
  4. 4 Legs Up BBQ
  5. Slap's BBQ