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I Still Smell (Like) Smoke

The Famous Dave's pig has surely become the iconic image of Safeway's National Capital Barbecue Battle. (Joe Yonan -- The Washington Post)

To start with a barbecue pun right off the bat, I hate to rub it in. But for my money the best way to experience a 'que competition has got to be as a judge. Judges get treated like royalty, and get to (or have to) eat (more than) their fill of smoked meat, most of which is pretty darn good, with some of it pretty bad and some downright sublime. And at a Memphis in May-style competition like Day Two of the Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle yesterday, those who are part of the on-site judging get up-close tours of teams' rigs and become an audience to the dog-and-pony show that some teams put on.

Competing, obviously, is a hell of a lot harder. While the camaraderie is beyond compare, this style of barbecue is truly an around-the-clock affair. It's work -- lots of work. Spectators, of course, have to brave the summer heat. But they only get to taste food from licensed vendors, while we judges get to swallow competition 'que that isn't for sale, and that's really where the best stuff is found.

Not that judging isn't work. Far from it.

First, I had to wrap my mind around the differences between Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned contests and those sanctioned by the Memphis Barbecue Network. Those two groups are like the Miss America and Miss USA of barbecue competition, the majors that each lead to their own world championship: For KCBS, it's "The Jack" in Tennessee each fall, and for MBN it's Memphis in May. The biggest difference between the two is probably in the categories: the MBN contests are more pork-centric, which is why Memphis in May is nicknamed the Super Bowl of Swine.

I'm a certified KCBS judge, which means I have been through a day-long training session. But I haven't done that yet for MBN. Turns out my "celebrity" status got me in, anyway. The organizers of the battle invited me to judge, and I picked the Memphis-style day on Sunday, mostly because I wanted to take part in the other main difference between the two contests: KCBS is an all-blind system, while Memphis adds on-site judges' visits to the mix. The on-site aspect acknowledges that barbecue is about more than just the food; it's about the culture, which is on full display when the competitors have their chance to sweet-talk the judges.

Still, when organizer Doug Halo gave us our marching orders at about 10 a.m. on Sunday, it was clear this would be no cakewalk. I was assigned two on-site sessions (for whole hog and ribs) and one blind session (for pork shoulder). Doug first went over the scoring: For Memphis it's a "deduction" system, meaning the barbecue is innocent until proven guilty. On a scale of 5 to 10 the assumption is that something is a 10 and then gets downgraded from there. In his estimation, the numbers should translate to:

5: "Inedible, or the team didn't show"
6: "You had to spit it out"
7: "You swallow, but it's pretty poor"
8: "Good barbecue, but flawed"
9: "Top-quality restaurant-level barbecue"
10: "Damn good barbecue"

A 10, he explained, isn't reserved for something that's perfect. "It's the best you've had today," he said. "If you have six samples and five make you gag, the other one should get a 10."

For the on-site sessions there are strict time limits and protocol. Ask as many questions as you'd like, but resist answering questions from the team about yourself. Turn off your cellphone. Don't take notes. Don't accept any gifts or alcohol. And so on.

I started off with a bang: a visit to the Jack's Old South rig, where Myron Mixon swept me up to the smoker, opened it and showed the mahogany hog, garnished right on the grill with tropical fruit and curly kale. I was required to judge only three pieces of meat -- loin, shoulder and ham -- but Mixon is no fool. He and his team had worked hard to get glorious results all over the animal, and he wasn't about to miss the opportunity to show those off. So I also got some skin, cheeks, belly and ribs. What a breakfast! Perhaps Myron was employing one of the tricks that teams use with on-site judges: Stuff them silly, and then the later teams won't earn as high a score because the judge won't find eating as pleasurable.

Whether or not that was the goal, I did give Jack's the highest scores, higher than I gave the great guys at the DCFD Firefighting BBQ Team and Chesapeake Dockside BBQ. I found both teams' meats good but somewhat drier and less flavorful than the samples from Jack's. But that's to be expected, really: Jack's is a champion many times over, and when I was there, filmmakers were shooting Myron and the judges (including me) for a documentary to be released this year or next on him, his brother and his late father, the legendary Jack Mixon. When the awards were announced last night, Jack's was at the top of all three Sunday categories and was declared grand champion of the pork day.

Tommy Schmitz of Bike to the Beach readies for battle. (Tommy Boylan)

Meeting the teams, even if I didn't score them at the top, was a highlight of the day. I particularly enjoyed talking to the young guys from Bike to the Beach, who did an excellent job for their first time out in the ribs category, cooking on a smoker they rigged up out of, appropriately enough, bicycle parts. Their ribs were well-cooked but a little salty; I was able to talk to them about it when I visited later in the day for feedback, as judges are encouraged to do. Turns out they mostly were there to raise awareness for their charity ride, which benefits Autism Speaks. So for them, with hundreds of new riders signed up, it was a hands-down win. (The entire event, in fact, benefits the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.)

After the judging, pork shoulder samples are up for grabs. The good stuff goes quickest, of course. (Joe Yonan -- The Washington Post)

The blind judging was a completely different animal: hushed, rigid (no garnishes at presentation), analytical -- at least during the tasting itself. Most of the six samples of pork shoulder were really good, but one was just outstanding: tons of peppery and smoky flavor without covering up the pork, a beautiful bark, and meat that was juicy and tender without being mushy. I gave it the highest scores, and from the looks of things at my table, the other judges did, too. One of my tablemates packed his own resealable plastic food storage bags and started to shove some of that great sample into it until he got scolded by one of the volunteers. All of the samples are taken to a common table, and it's one of the best things about having access to the judging tent: Volunteers, judges and other VIPs get to pick through the plastic-foam boxes after the judging is over, and word quickly spreads about which ones to try first.

My last category to judge was on-site ribs, and among my three teams again was Jack's Old South, whose entry struck me as a little bit too tender; I tend to like slightly more chew. But the flavor was beyond compare. Mixon uses a pineapple glaze, and it was so sticky and lightly sweet that it was like tasting pork candy. Wow. Mixon gave me the recipe, but it uses some of Jack's packaged barbecue sauce in addition to the pineapple, so once I get some of that in hand and can test it I'll share.

In the meantime, I'll stop writing so I can eat some more barbecue. After multiple pounds yesterday, I didn't think I'd be ready so quickly, but the body recovers, as does the palate. Mixon sent me home with some extra ribs (it's kosher to do that for judges, once the scoring is over), and I'm sharing them with colleagues for lunch today. Not to rub it in or anything.

-- Joe Yonan

By Joe Yonan  |  June 29, 2009; 2:15 PM ET
 | Tags: Joe Yonan, barbecue, contests  
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Did anyone mention to the participants that smoked and charred foods are proven to be significant human carcinogens?

Of course, everyone there *already* had to know that eating red meat, particularly the fatty red meat that barbecues so well, is a MAJOR cause of heart disease and cancer. And they obviously didn't care.

I look forward to paying for these blissfully, willfully ignorant people's healthcare in the coming years.

Posted by: DupontJay | June 29, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse


We attended yesterday (Sunday) and were terribly disappointed.

First, competitors don't sell to the public, leaving only Famous Dave's, Ocean City, a Pittsburgh place, and a fourth I'm forgetting. Eating at all but Famous Dave's (I can eat there anytime) what a disgusting let down.

Not one of the three had removed the apron (the tough part on the back of the ribs). All three lacked smoke rings. One had obviously been boiled as the meat completely fell apart and off the rib. And the third had no rub, but a dash of seasoning salt.

Talking to competitor's, many wanted to sell, but are required to be inspected by the DC Dept. of Health in order to sell foodstuffs. HELLO, ITS A BBQ COMPETITION.

Worst waste of $22 in admission and $30 in "ribs" ever.

The best food at the event was the steak samples given out by Safeway itself.

Waste of time. I won't be back next year Safeway.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | June 29, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your viewpoint, DJ. Just a couple things to add: First, it has been shown that certain marinades, among other things, may reduce the carcinogenic effects of charring. Secondly, as with anything, I think moderation (a little red meat today, fish tomorrow) is key when trying to eat a healthy diet.

Posted by: Joe_Yonan | June 29, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse must be the PETA pamphleteer outside that I was laughing at walking in. I'm down with Animal Rights and all but seriously...PETA pamphalting a BBQ contest? You must have had a rough day.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | June 29, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Anarcho, I feel your pain. This is a common complaint at every barbecue competition I've been to. I think the organizers would say that it's also difficult to find competitors who are willing to also vend, even if they have a license, because it's so difficult to focus on more than one thing at once. I plan on attending again -- as a judge or media. (Sorry!)

Posted by: Joe_Yonan | June 29, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, that was a terrible competition for the public. You have to pay an expensive entrance fee, and then you have to buy food, without even the opportunity to try the competitors' offerings. Lame. You should go to BBQ festivals in Brazil... you pay a smaller entrance fee and get all-you-can-eat meat of far better quality. Going to the Washington festival was a waste of time.

Posted by: Scully127 | June 29, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

would have been less painful if they had advertised that fact...

hey...come to a bbq festival where you can't taste the competitors fare. try the overcooked, boiled crap or the national chain ribs you can get anytime.

the word of mouth i will be spreading will not be encouraging people to attend next year.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | June 29, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

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