The weekend before last I judged the Pigs & Peaches barbecue contest in Kennesaw, GA. It’s the first contest I’ve judged in 5 months due to constraints associated with my new job. I had to drive 7.5 hours to get to Kennesaw from New Orleans.
I know that non-barbecue people (like my girlfriend) don't understand why I would travel so far just to judge a barbecue contest. However, for me there are a few reasons in this particular case.
First, I had judged for what seemed like an eternity and there were no other contests in my immediate area the rest of the barbecue season. Most of the contests in Louisiana are held in the spring timeframe, and are all over by the end of March.
Second, Georgia has been on my list of states to judge in ever since I began judging. I have a well thought out judging planning list of the places and states I want to judge in the future. Sometimes where I get to judge is dependent on where I’m living at the time and where I can have the opportunity to fly to. This contest in Georgia was my 15thstate that I’ve judged in. The contests have all been in the South and Midwest, and one in the Northeast. A few other states on my list are Arkansas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Washington, and New York.
Third, I’d heard that it was a very fun and well run event in a small community with a very nice festival associated with it. And that is exactly what I found. It was well worth the long drive to Georgia. As a matter of fact, Pigs & Peaches is in my ‘Top 5’ list of contests that I’ve ever judged and I really hope to be in Kennesaw next year for their 11th annual event.
Fourth, I like travelling and taking road trips. I get bored staying at home on weekends, even though there is often a lot to do in New Orleans.
Finally, “What the heck, it’s Barbecue”!
It was a very peaceful, incident-free, and long road trip. And traveling through the two barbecue states of Mississippi and Alabama, I had thoughts of the local barbecue establishments, upcoming contests I’m scheduled to judge, my “someday hopefully in the near future” barbecue restaurant that I’m planning on opening, and not being at work on a beautiful day in August.
My weekend barbecue experience started out on a funny and unexpected note on Friday evening when I arrived at the contest site. When you travel a fair distance East or West in the United States you very often pass into another time zone. We all know this, but often forget about the change in time when planning our trip. This, of course, happened to me.
I was travelling from Central to Eastern Time, an hour ahead, and arrived just as the judge’s meeting as about to begin. Actually I was 15 minutes late. I arrived at the site, parked my car, and walked to the convention center. When I walked in, I asked a volunteer at the Information Office to show me where the barbecue contest sign-in was. He walked me down the hallway and when we came to the door of the meeting room Doug Rhodes, the contest organizer, opened the door and said are you Marc”? I said “Yes” and walked into the room to a round of applause. I naturally took a bow. Apparently, Doug had just told the other judges that I was traveling in from New Orleans and that he’d check one more time to see if I’d arrived. I’d never made such a grand entrance before and Doug and I joked about it. This not only speaks to the quality of Doug and the KCBS contest reps, but to the barbecue community as a whole.
(I hate to admit it, but this also happened to me at my very first barbecue contest. I was traveling from Chicago, IL to Goshen, IN. However, this was the morning of the actual KCBS contest. I arrived just after the meeting and oath, and I was very fortunate enough they allowed me judge. (“Rookie” mistake!)
The contest this weekend was a very friendly and fun atmosphere, and the hospitality of Doug and his staff was truly first rate. I made some new “barbecue buddies”outside of my normal judging territory, which is always great. The Pigs & Peaches Festival was larger than most you encounter on the barbecue circuit. It had a wide variety of booths selling everything from massages to raffles to apple cider, and as always, great barbecue was vended.
Additionally great, the contest was held in the town convention center in a large, air conditioned meeting room. It’s always a great thing in the South during summer to have a function in an air conditioned, indoor venue. We’ve all been to events where we’ve judged in a large tent outside in the sweltering heat, so I know you can appreciate the venue too.
As this was a KCBS-sanctioned contest the usual four categories were judged. On Friday night there was an Anything Butt’ and ‘Peach Dessert’ contest. Unfortunately fewer and fewer contests do this, which is a real shame. Friday night ‘other’ contests are always fun, relaxed, interesting, and give the cooks an opportunity to test their creative skills in categories they don’t normally cook.
The ‘Anything Butt’ entries were pretty good, but the ‘Peach Dessert’ entries were all amazing! It was the hardest category I had to judge all weekend. The winner on my score card was a peach and apple crisp cheesecake with a tart peach glaze, very slightly over a perfectly cooked half peach with apple crisp in it and a white icing artistically drizzled on top. My favorite dessert in the whole world is Peach Cobbler, or anything peach really. So, the dessert category was the main reason I fell asleep early last Friday night and gained 5 lbs. over the weekend. I definitely over-indulged on peachy sweetness!
I became disappointingly aware of something this weekend that has become a trend in all the contests I’ve judged in various places over the past 2 years. The quality of the ribs has declined and cooking brisket has become a lost art. The chicken and pork categories have remained at a high level of quality fortunately.
The ribs have tended to be overcooked - falling off the bone, less flavorful spicing or not enough spice, and too much sauce - masking the taste of the cooked meat. I’ve even judged a few ribs that were burned– probably from putting on the direct heat to warm-up or finish cooking. These days it’s hard to find a great rib that you’d “kill for” a full rack of after sampling it. In the past I’d find at least one at every 2-3 contests I judged. I know my palate and judging skills haven’t changes in the past 2 years.
The brisket has tended to be dry, with little flavor, and over or under cooked in a majority of the 6 entries I’ve judged.
Usually there is only one, or possibly two, “good” brisket entries per table. And this has been the consensus of the other judges at my tables during our discussion, following turning in our score cards, not just my opinion. I know brisket is the hardest meat to cook, as the window where it is perfectly cooked is so small. However, this is professional barbecue and the percentage of “good” brisket entries should be much higher.
I don’t know if it is the number of new cooks on the barbecue circuit these days who aren’t as skilled as the more experienced cooks, the random selection of entries that I’ve been presented at my tables to judge – which is statistically unlikely, or the high number of events that cooks compete in during the season these days where they have become laxed with their cooking techniques, or something else, or a combination of things, but something has
effected what we receive judge.
As a master judge, I feel confident in my assessment and stand behind the statement. This is based on my honest observations and passion for our great “sport”. It is also something I hope changes very soon.
However, what matters most is that I had a great time at a barbecue contests this weekend! As we all know, any day judging or cooking barbecue is always better than a good day at work!
Since I put Pigs & Peaches in my “Top 5” list, my next column will be about What Makes a Great Barbecue Contest?
Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!