I was at a local barbecue place last night, and they had ribbons and trophies all around. How many competitions are there, and how much credence should I give winners for winning?
— a leftover question from last week’s Free Range chat
Look, trophies are great, but whether they take the full measure of a rack of ribs is highly debatable. There are a zillion contests out there. Memphis in May, which just concluded, is one of the oldest and, arguably, the grandest. It bills itself as The World Championship.
There’s the Kansas City Barbeque Society’s Team of the Year, Sam’s Club National BBQ Tour with its national championship, the American Royal World Series of Barbecue, the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo with its World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest and even Washington’s own Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle, planned for June 25 and 26, which awards the title of National Pork Champion.
Oh, then there are the sub-genre competitions, such as the World Championship Barbecue Goat Cookoff in Brady, Texas, and all the local contests and state championships, with all the various judging rules (depending on the “sanctioning” organization) and the numerous food categories. Not to mention that there are, typically but not always, a first, second and third place in each category, then an overall winner and a second-place overall winner.
In other words, if you compete for any length of time, it’s hard not to win something. So a wall of trophies can look impressive, but can mean little.
Conversely, it can mean a lot. Some competitors are genuine champions, people like Myron Mixon, Mike Mills, Rod Gray, Paul Kirk, Chris Lilly and Johnny Trigg. They have won their reputations (and enough bankable cred to star on TV shows or open restaurants) through triumphing in many contests and winning recognized world/national/whatever-you-wanna-call-it championship crowns.
So the thing about a trophy is knowing something about the contest it came from and what the award-winner won. Did he place third in ribs? Second in pork shoulder? Or was he grand champion at several premiere events?
But, believe it or not, that’s only a start. Complicating matters is that, often, the barbecue judged at a contest is not the same stuff a diner would eat at an award-winner’s restaurant. At contests, competitors have to wow the judges. A judge might eat no more than a single bite and pretty much never the equivalent of a full meal. (Judges have lots of barbecue to consume).
So competitors inject their pork shoulder with, say, apple juice or bourbon or some complex elixir of seasonings and liquid. Or they will concoct a highly complicated rub. Or they’ll do both. The injection gives the meat a distinctive flavor and keeps it juicy. It also can make for a bite too rich for the average restaurant customer to consume over the course of a meal. As one champion barbecuer/restaurateur told me, nodding toward his award-winning pork shoulder at a top-flight contest: “You would never get this in my restaurant. Way too rich.”
Plus, at most restaurants, the food is cooked differently. At the vast majority of competitions, gas and electricity are prohibited. Competitors use hardwoods or charcoal throughout the cooking process. At many restaurants today, the barbecue is slow-roasted in gas-fired ovens that burn wood. The depth of flavor in competition barbecue, with its emphasis on wood-smoking, is greater than what you get from a, more or less, set-it-and-forget-it oven.
All of that said, I admire those restaurateurs who compete. I’ve found that the people who compete are passionate about barbecuing. They constantly tinker with their rubs or sauces or blends of wood, trying to find that magical “sweet spot” that wins the judges’ palates.
Here’s the thing, though. As passionate as the competition guys are, so are many restaurateurs who have never competed. Some of the best places in the country got started in the early or mid-20th century, long before the competition craze got underway about 30 years ago, and they remain among the best today.
So does it matter if a restaurant has a lot of trophies? Let me ask again: What did you think of the food?
Compete for a cause. Speaking of competitions, the $6,500 Que for the Troops competition will be held in Levittown, Pa., on Saturday and Sunday. All proceeds from this event will be donated to Liberty USO, which helps meet the needs of service members and their families throughout Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. For more info about competing, attending or donating, visit Que for the Troops.
And the winner is… Make sure to check the Food section on Wednesday, May 24, to find out the winners of the first Smoke Signals Barbecue Sauce Recipe Contest.
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