"If you are a barbecue fanatic, judging at a barbecue contest is as good as it gets."
Every year, thousands of dedicated barbecuers gather to prove that all barbecue is not created equal. They come together at competitions called Barbecue Cook-Offs. The majority of these cook-offs are held in the Southeastern United States, although there have been cook-offs as far from our shores as Ireland and New Zealand. Texas probably leads the nation in the number of cook-offs for an individual state. The central states of Kansas and Missouri also have numerous competitions. Washington State, British Columbia and California take care of the West Coast competitions, the strongest being centered around Seattle.
The competitions fall into three broad categories:
- The Purist straight competitions,
- the Fund-raising cook-offs for charities,
- and the Commercial cook-offs for those in the business of barbecuing.
At the Purist cook-offs, the competition is dedicated to finding the best barbecuer of that particular day. Some of these affairs are divided into "Professional" and "Amateur" divisions -- the difference being there is prize money for the professionals.
The Fund-raising cook-offs are more "showy", presenting entertainment to attract a crowd that will spend some money. The contestants at these events are mostly sponsored by some company with the understanding that the contestants will have some barbecue and trimmings for visitors the company wants to treat.
The Commercial cook-offs allow their contestants to sell barbecue to the general public, sort of a traveling food court. Tons of barbecue are consumed at the commercial events.
The Purist events are usually two-day affairs. The first day gives the barbecuers time to set up their equipment and have ample time to cook their product. The Fund-raisers and commercial shows can go or for three or four days.
The Purist cook-offs will average about 20 entries. The largest, The American Royal at Kansas City, will draw over 300 entries. The Fund-raisers will probably average about 100 entries. The Commercial shows will only have about 30 entries so that each contestant will have ample crowd to buy his product. (Attendance at one of the good Commercial shows will run into the tens of thousands).
Prize money at the Purist competitions can range from $100 for top prize up to multiple thousands to be distributed among the winners. The Fund-raisers usually don't have prize money available. The Commercial prize winner can walk off with as much as $25,000 in cash, but the publicity generated by winning such a competition is worth uncountable profits.
Judging at the Fund-raisers and the Commercial contests is somewhat suspect. Not unusual for lawsuits to fly after a commercial show.
On the other hand, the Purist contests put great store in honest judging. A blind judging system is used. Here, the judges do not know who prepared the samples they are judging. A secret number on the judging container is used to identify the winner after judging.
If you are a barbecue fanatic, judging at a barbecue contest is as good as it gets. Each contest has its own criteria for selecting judges, usually a mixture of local celebrities and dedicated barbecue fans.
There is a movement by the Kansas City Barbecue Society to produce "qualified" judges. For a fee, you can go to judging school and get a card that says you are qualified to judge barbecue. It is my opinion that anyone who likes barbecue and can understand how to fill out a score sheet is a qualified barbecue judge. No matter trained or untrained judges, the cream will rise to the top -- the barbecuer with the best product will win.
Being a contestant at a barbecue cook-off requires some time and planning. Even if you are entering the Amateur or Backyard Division with your Smoky Poky pit you got for Christmas, you still have to shop around for the best cuts of meat and the freshest spices. The folks who enter contests on a regular basis will have a trailer-mounted pit to haul all their gear. These folks don't cook with charcoal so they even have to haul in their wood.
A lot of hard, hot work is involved in being a competitive barbecue chef. Most of the contest will have more than one category to enter, some have as many as seven categories. The very popular contest at Taylor, Texas, for example, has categories for pork, beef brisket, ribs, goat, lamb, seafood and wild game. All seven samples are due in at the judging station within a three-hour time span. The majority of the cookers prepare all seven meats on the same pit so, it really takes some know-how to get things done and not overdone. Timing is the most important factor in winning one of these contests. You only learn that from experience.
You seldom see a one-man team at a barbecue contest. It takes several hands to keep all the balls in the air. It also helps to share the expenses. Count up what it would cost just for the meat and seasonings for seven categories, add your personal food and beverage needs for two days and a night, plus a motel bill if you are from out of town and don't have a motor home, factor in a $100 entry fee, and you're in. Oh, nearly forgot the investment in a pit and related equipment. It's an expensive sport.
Barbecuing as a Spectator Sport
As a spectator at a barbecue contest, you can expect to see some of the best barbecuers in the world at work. Most of them will share their expertise with you if they are not too busy. You will also get to see, up close and personal, some high dollar barbecue pits. I've seen pits from commercial manufacturers running into the tens of thousands of dollars. I've also seen winning pits made in the backyard from such diverse objects as a bathtub and a fire engine. Joe Amyx from Denton, Texas had a pit made from metal in the shape of a ten-foot tall jackrabbit. Perhaps the best part is, if you are polite, you will be offered a sample of what's cooking. It's a good way to spend a Summer afternoon. Winter, Fall and Spring are okay, too.
If you are thinking about entering a barbecue contest, don't be put off by the seemingly huge investment shown by the cookers. You can start in the Backyard Division and work your way up as you learn.
Learn the Rules
The most important thing is to understand the rules. If you have a question, ask someone who knows the answer. You are going to find that timing is the next most important piece of the puzzle. Your product has to be ready at judging time; they won't wait for you like your relatives do.
You will learn to select the best cuts of meat and where to find them. You will investigate many combinations of spices, rubs, mops and sauces. You will finally hit on the winning combination, and then you can proudly show off your trophy(ies). It's a good thing to get the whole family involved. Second generation competition barbecuers are starting to show up on the winners lists.
Sure, there will be some hanky-panky observed, such as trying to substitute chicken breast for pork loin or a huge chunk of sirloin for beef brisket. These things will be noticed by the judges and the samples will hit File 13. I assure you, if you have the best barbecue of the day, you will win.
- Staging Your Own Cook-Off
by John Raven, Ph.B.
- National Beef Cook-Off
Comes to Fort Worth for 2003
- The Agony of Defeat
How to Lose a Cooking Contest
- Recipe Contests Can Be Fun and Profitable
by Pamela Slover Percival
- Texas Events Calendar
Current listing of cook-offs, festivals, rodeos, and other Texas celebrations