I grew up in South Texas, so I was eating barbecue practically before my first teeth came in. I have a brother-in-law in the barbecue business. I have learned to turn out a pretty mean brisket on the Weber grill in the backyard.
So when I was invited to judge the Montana BBQ Cook-Off in Absarokee last year, I went into it with no humility to spare. Boy, was that a mistake. The humbling Cook-Off goes on again this Sunday, June 7, in downtown Absarokee. You can find details in the Calendar of Events.
That’s the fun part. The humbling part started with a day of serious (and delicious) training to learn proper judging standards and etiquette. Barbecue contestants are required to abide by strict rules governing servings and presentation. Judges try to keep their minds open and their palates clear, paying careful attention to certain aspects and ignoring others, such as the familiar red tinge around the edges of a piece of barbecue, which contestants can fake.
Judges also are expected to avoid alcohol while judging, an easy enough admonition on training day, but a much tougher requirement during competitive judging. But the actual judging is even tougher. The contestants, by and large, really know their stuff. I’m not sure whether calling barbecue a religion demeans religion or demeans barbecue.
The difference between a champion barbecue and a chopped beef sandwich is a matter about which both reasonable and unreasonable people can disagree. Even samples from the same contestant can vary widely: one might be dry and tough, another succulent.
Sorting all of that out is hard work, after all, and largely anonymous. It’s also unpaid, except that judges get to keep uneaten samples they are given.
The samples add up. After last year’s judging, I walked around to the various barbecue pits to see if I could tell the winners from the losers. But I quickly found that my interest in barbecue had vanished for the day. So we sipped cool liquids on a burning hot summer day, checked out the vendors and watched lucky victims get a soaking in the dunking booth.
It was a good time, and we will be heading back on Sunday. See you there.