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Here Comes the Judge

by John Raven, Ph. B.

The third Saturday in August is a very important day for Texas barbecue. It marks the annual Taylor International Barbecue Cook-Off. This year was the twenty-second time the event has raised the temperature in Murphy Park.



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Even before the annual barbecue cook-off began, Taylor was known far and wide as the barbecue center of Texas. Three world-famous barbecue cafes are located within blocks of each other in Taylor. Rudy's Barbecue, Louie Mueller's Barbecue and the Taylor Cafe all have their devotees.

I was selected to be a judge at the very first Taylor International Barbecue Cook-Off. It was such a fine way to spend a day that I've only missed two of the twenty-two events. The competition is sponsored by the Taylor Junior Chamber of Commerce. Invitations to the judges go out about two months in advance. The prospective judges are asked to give their preference as to what categories they wish to judge.

On the day of judgment, the judges gather at the Durango Room of Rudy's Barbecue for a mixer and a briefing on judging procedures for the new judges. Tim Mikeska and his sister, Mopsy, host the gathering and provide a fine noon meal for the judges. The meal is non-barbecue. Tim and Mopsy turn out some of the finest fried chicken and catfish around, along with the "trimmin's". No one has ever been able to get an accurate count, but there are always from 50 to 75 judges. At about eleven o'clock, the judges adjourn to Murphy Park for the judging.

One thing you can count on at the barbecue, the weather will be HOT! Temperatures in the triple digits are the norm. In the cooking area amid the dozens of barbecue pits, the temperature can run much higher. The cooks have learned to cope with the heat. They bring shade, drink plenty of liquids and dress for the weather.

This year I was assigned to judge the finals of the brisket competition. I wasn't due at the table until 2:45, so I had time to visit. Right off, I spotted my old friend Bill Bridges from Palestine, Texas. Bill is a retired writer-photographer and is the author of The Great Chili Book, which is the best tome on the subject. Bill and I exchanged our latest medical reports and then discussed various barbecue establishments we had visited. Bill has probably been in more barbecue cafes than any other living American.

Bill left to go judge the "Best looking Pit" category. I went to visit Harley Goerlitz, champion barbecuer and fence builder from Giddings, Texas. Harley is one of the cookers who has learned to dress for the weather. Harley wears a pair of cut-off jeans, a pair of boots, an apron and a straw hat. I arrived at Harley's camp just as he was sending his seafood sample in for judging. I got one of the shrimp that didn't fit in the container. Harley's shrimp was grilled with a good red sauce and bell pepper. Was very good. Harley and I exchanged news and then he had to go back to finishing his other entries for the competition.

There are seven divisions for barbecue at Taylor. Beef, ribs, pork, poultry, lamb, seafood and wild game. Multiply seven divisions by 85 to 100 contestants and you get a lot of barbecue. After the judging is completed, the leftover samples are collected by one of the Taylor food pantries and will end up on the tables of some needy folks.

Seafood is the most popular category with the judges. They can always count lots of shrimp. This year, there was a bit of lobster to compete with the shrimp. Various fish round out the category. Ribs get a lot of attention, too. Everyone loves a good rib. All the categories have their champions, so there is never a paucity of judges for any one category. For years, my favorite category was wild game. There was always a real assortment of meats to choose from. I've had armadillo, alligator, rattlesnake, venison, and a lot of things that were known only as "mystery meat". One year, my friends from the Great Northwest made me believe their sample was cougar. For those of you who wonder, it was like a giant chicken gizzard.

The last few years I have concentrated on the brisket at Taylor. After all, brisket is THE Texas barbecue. Every year there will be a half-dozen or more of Texas's finest brisketeers competing at Taylor. It is worth wading through a few so-so briskets to reach one of the really great briskets. This year there were seventeen brisket samples on the final table. The preliminary judges had culled out the wannabees and left the final judges with the cream of the crop.

There were six judges on the final table. The judges are provided with drinks, a plate of cheese, crackers and grapes for clearing the taste buds, a knife and fork, and the all-important judging sheet and pencil.

The samples are in Styrofoam cartons. Each carton has a judging number written on the top. The cooks are allowed to wrap their samples in foil to keep in the warmth and moisture. Nothing else is allowed in the judging carton. Each sample is passed around the table. The judges check for appearance, aroma, tenderness and taste. They also use their own personal criteria for judging. Each sample is scored from one to ten, with one being the low score, and the scores are recorded on the judging sheet. Conversation ceases while judging is in progress. Each judge is concentrating on the sample in front of him or her. A bevy of nice young ladies keep the judges' glasses charged with beer, tea, soda pop or water. No one goes dry.

As the samples passed me, I recorded my scores. The first few samples were just about average so they got a "five". Then came one that had the proper black crust, decent smoke ring and a taste that went all the way through the slice; it scored a "seven". There were a couple of disappointments. One sample resembled roast beef more than anything else -- no smoke flavor, no crust. Another was sliced really thin. When the cook gets a tough brisket, he slices it really thin hoping the judges won't notice. Toward the end of the judging came the brisket I had been waiting for. It had the black crust, deep red smoke ring about three-eighths of an inch thick, and it was as juicy as an orange. But most of all, it had the taste that only a championship Texas brisket can have. Just delicious. I gave it a "nine" because we all know there is no perfect brisket.

I've already marked the third Saturday in August, 2000 as Taylor International Barbecue Cook-Off Day. Why don't you do the same?

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