Last weekend I judged my very first Memphis Barbecue Network barbecue contest since being trained on June 9th of this year. The event was the 24th Annual Murphysboro Cook-off in Murphysboro, IL.
The barbecue contest is unique in that each year it’s a dual competition, with two separate competitions at the same time. There is an MBM contest using their rules and procedures and a KCBS contest using their rules and procedures. There are only a handful or more of sanctioned dual barbecue competitions throughout the nation. Cooks can prepare barbecue entries for either contest, or both. Rarely cooking teams will compete in both contests, but this year in Murphysboro a few teams did. The judges are selected to judge either MBN or KCBS, based on what they have been trained to judge. Often judges who are dually trained wind up judging categories in both contests.
This was my third year judging the contest, but the past two years as a KCBS judge.
The contest is run by “The Legend” Mike Mills, his daughter Amy, and the staff of his famous restaurant the 17th Street Bar & Grill. It always draws some of the very best cooking teams on the barbecue circuit. The contest’s perennial sloan is “Praise the Lard - an old-fashioned tent revival celebrating the Almighty Pig”. If you’ve never judged this contest before, you really need to put it at the top of your “to judge someday” list to attend. Murphysboro is a quaint little town in Southern Illinois just down the road from Carbondale. Cooks and judges get treated like Hollywood stars. The Friday evening dinner, preceding the Saturday barbecue contests, is catered by the 17th Street Bar & Grill and is to die for. here is a truckload of some of the best pork ribs, pulled pork, and side dishes you’ll ever want to eat. Everyone “pigs out” at the dinner because the food is so amazing; knowing full well that the next day we’ll be eating even more barbecue during judging. But you just don’t care. At least I never do! In addition to all that, Mike Mills is one of the nicest and unassuming people you’d ever want to meet.
When you complete your MBN training you are considered "trained", but not “certified”. In order to become certified you must judge each of the 3 MBN judging categories - Whole Hog, Shoulder and Ribs - and judge at least once each in the Blindand On-site format. You don't receive your actual judge badge until you become certified. It usually takes two contests to meet these criteria.
At MBN competitions onlyPork is permitted; no chicken or brisket like at KCBS competitions. At Murphysboro I judged Whole Hog in the Blind format and Shoulder in the On-site format. Being able to judge whole hog at my first MBN contest was kind of a big deal, as everyone wants to judge it and it is so different than the meats judged a KCBS competition. I appreciated the assignment.
I was quite nervous about judging MBN since I'd never done on-site or whole hog before; though I'd judged almost 40+
barbecue contests and was familiar with whole hog. Being face to face with a cooking team while evaluating them, as opposed to being in a room only with their meat box in front of you, was a daunting thought prior to actually doing it. It
had been a long time since I felt like a “rookie”. Fortunately I had a few of my KCBS barbecue buddies there who were that were dual certified, as well as a few new MBN barbecue buddies, to give me advice and answer my questions prior to my first judging.
It was raining when the judges meeting began, so we were told we’d be judging “above the belt" for Appearance for on-site. This translates to when we were evaluating the Appearance of the team sites, we weren’t permitted to evaluate
the cleanliness of the floor or ground, shoes, pants, or anything below approximately 3 feet due to the muddy conditions. I'd never heard of the term or concept “above the belt” before as it related to barbecue. So, I’d learned something new very early on in the day.
I was also fortunate to blind judge the whole hog category first, which got me acclimated to an MBN contest. It allowed me to judge and score for the first time in a familiar format (like at a KCBS contest) and thus helped me to relax. OK, and to get confident as well.
In blind judging the whole hog our table had 5 entries that were divided in the boxes by the 3 portions of the hog that are judged: the shoulder, loin and ham. Four of the five entries had 1 or 2 barbecue sauces to compliment the meat; a mild and a hot. We were expected to taste the meat and sauce alone, and then together. There were a total of 4 judges at my table.
I felt the blinding judging went very well, as again I was familiar with the format. I took my time evaluating each meat entry and the related sauce, and in recording my scores. I thought my scores and rankings were “accurate”. It was fairly easy for me to evaluate the entries and very fun too. All 5 of cooking teams did an excellent job and we didn’t receive any subpar barbecue. After all the scorecards were submitted we discussed the meats we’d just evaluated. Half of us liked entry #2 and half of us liked entry #4. So as a result of that, I felt confident that I did a good job. Doing a good job is my most heart-felt goal (obsession actually) at every barbecue contest I’ve ever judged, and ever will judge.
Next, I went outside to judge three cooking teams for shoulder on-site. Luckily the rain had stopped by then. At this contest there are volunteers called “Ambassadors” to show you to your teams’ sites and help you stay on time. You have one hour to visit the 3 teams and initially score them, spending 10-15 minutes with each team. You make your notes and initial scores after leaving the team’s site and before visiting your next team's site. You record your final category scores and your ‘Overall Impression’ scores ranking the teams 1 through 3 when you get back to the judges meeting area.
Having two Ambassadors to assist me took a big load off my mind and helped me focus on my evaluation responsibilities. Of course at my next contest I won’t need assistance, as I’ll be a “veteran” and not nervous!
At the team sites I listened intently to the presentations that focus on where the meat was procured, how the meat was prepared, the cooking method and preferences, the temperature cooked at, the seasoning used, the sauce(s)
presented, and any barbecue secrets and stories they wanted to let me know about. Then came the best part of any judging event, tasting the succulent barbecued meat. And what an amazing experience that was! Each of the pork shoulders I tasted were excellent, the wonderful smoke and pork flavor exploded in my mouth. And each of the sauces were professional-grade. It was some of the best barbecued pork I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating –
honestly. I’d never lie about anything barbecue related.
In the end, my time at the team sites was extremely enjoyable and went by so quickly. At each of the 3 teams my
Ambassadors had to let me know that the 15 minutes was up and I had to move on. What a blast! And most important of all, I dined on(oops!) sampled some outstandingtasting and very tender pork.
It was extremely hard to score the three teams on their pork shoulder, and differentiating the teams with a 1st, 2nd,
and 3rd ranking. I spend a lot of time analyzing my scores, reflecting on what I saw, and reviewing the notes I’d taken; thank God for my notes.
After I finished scoring and handed in my scorecard, I was told that I’d drawn three very good championship barbecue teams to judge. Which explained why I had so much trouble scoring the teams - and helped sooth my pride. What I was told was apparently true, not only because of my difficulty scoring the teams, but also in the fact that two of those three teams were in the contest Finals (a total of only 3 teams make the finals). Moreover, one of those two teams, Tower Rock, won Grand Champion.
It seems that you eat more meat in an MBN contest than a KCBS contest. In MBN you are comparing entries as opposed to evaluating them individually, and have sauces to evaluate as best complimenting the meat. Therefore, you probably eat more tasting the meat by itself, tasting the sauce, tasting the meat with the sauce provided, and re-tasting the meat again against the other entries to ensure you give the“right” score and rank order.
I hope to judge my second MBN event in Mississippithis coming weekend, and earn my MBN certification by judging the Ribs category. Like with my KCBS judging, I’m now addicted to judging MBN. Which means attending a few more contests each year and asking for a few more passes from my girlfriend for a few more “weekend barbecue excursions”.
Murphysboro represents excellence in barbecue, hospitality, and the American way of life. While the rest of the world is governed overall by Murphy’s Law, in Illinois barbecue is governed by Murphys(boro) Law and two great barbecue
Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!