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Barbecue pointers from The Jack in Lynchburg

November 2, 2011

Written by Jennifer Justus | Staff Writer

Before we raised our right hands to recite the oath of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, we first had to be certified as judges.

So a roomful of us had gathered to listen to instructor Mike Lake, as he delivered some serious words:

“Forget everything you know about barbecue,” he said from under a silver handlebar moustache, as he paced in front of a projected slideshow.

Forget about grandma’s fall-off-the-bone ribs.

Forget about your uncle’s favorite vinegar sauce.

Prepare to pace yourself as you chomp through at least six entries in four meat categories.

But on the other hand, Lake warned: “I don’t want to see judges bird-picking their food, either.”

The day after our certification, we would judge the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue competition. On the line would ride more than $15,000 in cash and prizes — and even more bragging rights. “The Jack,” which has been held in October in Lynchburg for more than 20 years, is governed by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which strives to standardize judging, along with sanctioning more than 300 barbecue competitions across the country. And while some say contests of this sort can reward homogeneity over creativity and regional tastes, they also can teach a few lessons about barbecue that can be applied in the real world.

For starters, make it look good.

Looks come first

As Lake instructed, we learned that each piece of barbecue would be judged on appearance first before a morsel of it ever slipped past our lips.

Cooks in competition barbecue meticulously prepare “boxes” (Styrofoam take-out containers) for the judges that contain cooks’ entries in four categories: chicken, ribs, pork and brisket. The boxes must be prepared under a strict set of guidelines.

For example, only certain garnishes may be used, such as green lettuces (no kale or cabbage), and each box must contain six pieces, one for each judge at each table of six people. If the boxes deviate from these guidelines, the entries can be disqualified.

The take-home lesson in presentation, however, is that we eat with our eyes first. While we’re in no threat of a disqualification at home, it never hurts to take the time to make dishes look attractive: Distribute sauce evenly over pieces of meat, cut meat carefully into attractive pieces and arrange them neatly on a bed of greens.

Lesson number two: Be passionate.

Great barbecue comes with lots of practice, and at The Jack, you can find many testaments to that.

Troy Black, one of about 60 judges at the double-blind contest, had won 23 state titles and had competed at The Jack the past five years. These days he tours the country as the face of grilling and barbecuing for Sam’s Club. He knows the rules as both a competitor and a judge.

In addition to judging on appearance and taste, Kansas City Barbecue Society judges grade on texture. Teams choose the cut of meat in each category that suits their style best, such as chicken thighs (about 75 percent of chicken entries, Lake said) over breasts or other white meat, for example, because thighs tend to hold moisture well. While some cooks prepare baby backs (or loin ribs as they are also called) from the upper portion of the hog, others might choose St. Louis style, spare ribs that have the brisket bone and all skirt meat removed.

Properly cooked ribs in competition should have a slight tug, Lake says, and come clean off the bone only when a bite is taken. “Falling off the bone” ribs might indicate overcooking (though some cooks who aren’t competing certainly prefer them this way.

Meanwhile, properly cook beef brisket, which comes from the underside chest muscle of the cattle, should hold up to the “pull test,” Lake said. When stretching a piece of brisket, it should offer some resistance and yet come apart without crumbling.

All three areas of grading — appearance, taste and texture — should be considered independently of one another, Lake said.

“It’s important to discern between flavor and texture,” he said.

No comparisons

Final lesson: Stay in the moment.

Can a barbecue competition really teach mindfulness? You bet. Lake instructed us to taste each piece of meat on its own merits. Make no comparisons, he said, and taste each piece “like it’s the first piece of chicken you’ve ever tasted.”

Over the course of the contest, if a judge were to eat just one bite of each entry (which is pretty much impossible, really) it would rack up to more than 2 pounds of meat. That’s not including the dessert, sauce or other non-barbecue-related categories. So if anything, these contests teach participants to pay attention to what’s happening in each bite, and not just gobble through it.

But maybe it’s best when staying in the moment doesn’t mean forgetting your manners. While taking a break between judging sessions, fellow judge Black politely conversed for a few minutes before offering this tip:

“I know you well enough now to tell you,” he said, “you have barbecue sauce on both sides of your mouth.”

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