Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Peak of Good Judging

Judging at the Peak City Pig Fest in Apex, NC, has been a goal since I was first certified as a judge. The classes that I attended for being both a judge and table captain were conducted by the Apex Sunrise Rotary Club, the organization that organizes the Pig Fest, and I wanted to participate in the club’s signature event.

Even though the Pig Fest was established as recently as 2012, it has quickly become one of the popular barbecue competitions on the East Coast. The Rotary Club, which has only 28 members, takes barbecue seriously — half the members are certified judges — and considers the Pig Fest as its signature event for good reason. It raises about $20,000 annually for local charities, which is usually donated to two worthy causes such as Western Wake Crisis Ministry (which provides emergency financial aid and food to families in a crisis) and Operation Coming Home (which builds homes for disabled veterans).

The grand champion wins $2,000.

The cooking teams were vying for a first place prize of $2,000 and competing for $9,000 in total prize money. The Pig Fest also has been proclaimed a N.C. state championship by the governor (although more than one state championship may be held). Because the Pig Fest doesn’t charge for parking or admission and is held in the historic downtown section of Apex, it’s very popular. More than 20,000 visitors attend. Most adults are interested in the pork barbecue prepared by the cooking teams that is sold by the plate with slaw and bread, but the kids are also interested in pig races that are held every two hours on Saturday.

More than 1,200 platters (200 more than last year) of pork barbecue are sold.

The Pig Fest is named for Apex, which has a nickname of Peak City and is known as the “peak of good living.” When the railroad station at Apex was chartered in 1854, it was the highest point on the route between Richmond, Va., and Jacksonville, Fla. Proof of its high point (although only 499 feet above sea level) occurs when it rains. Water on one side of Salem Street (the main street) flows to the Neuse River, and water on the other side to a different river basin, the Cape Fear River.

Salem Street (the main street of Apex), known historically for its elevation, is now legendary for its Pig Fest.

At the Pig Fest, I met Bill Jones of Richmond, Va., who may set the record for judging contests in one year. Jones is a master judge — meaning that he has judged at 30 contests, cooked with a competition team, and passed a qualifying exam. He told me that he had applied to 38 events in 2015 and has been accepted so far at 28. Jones enjoys picking locations outside of his home state — Wisconsin, Vermont, Mississippi — and making an adventure of visiting new areas. He is inspiring for how much he enjoys being a judge.

Judges relax before the cooking teams begin to turn in their best barbecue.

The number of cooking teams was capped at 48 because the space available could not accommodate more. Typically, a contest needs a similar number of judges. However, more than 150 applied to the Pig Fest that needed 48 judges and 8 table captains. Terry Winebrenner, Chairman of Judging, culled through the applications to select a range of experience and background.

Cooking teams set up in 'Hog Heaven" in a parking lot on the west side of Salem Street.

For each table, which consists of a table captain and six judges, Winebrenner selected a master judge, a judge from out-of-state, and a newly certified judge. Letting new judges participate is important to the Kansas City Barbeque Society so that they can gain experience. As planned by Winebrenner, new judges have a chance to ask questions and work with experienced judges, such as Bill Jones.

Trophies await the judges' scores for best chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket.

In the two previous years, I had applied to judge but wasn’t selected (too many applications). In fact, the first event that I applied to judge after I had completed the judges’ class (with almost 100 others) was the Peak Fest, which was overwhelmed with more applications than it could accept. Fortunately this year my application was accepted, and I enjoyed sitting at the table where Winebrenner was the captain.

The Pig Fest was a great experience — the barbecue was excellent, the event is expertly run, and the setting in an old historic downtown is picturesque. Because the event was organized by the club that conducted my initial training, being a judge was even more special. Being in the Peak City is the peak of good judging.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Judging on the National Tour

What barbecue contest awards the most prize money? Many cooking teams, judges, and barbecue society members are interested in the Sam’s Club BBQ National Tour because it has the largest prize purse of a barbecue competition anywhere. A total of $500,000 is awarded to the lucky competitors.

The Sam's Club National BBQ Tour attracts 750 cooking teams
and gives away $500,000 in prize money.

The Sam’s Club Tour attracts about 750 teams nationally who compete in 25 local events. The top six teams of local cookoffs continue to five regional competitions. The best of the regionals advance to the national finals in October when 50 teams, 10 from each region, compete at Sam’s Club Headquarters in Arkansas to determine the national champion.

Cooking teams set up a day in advance in the parking lot of Sam's Club in North Charleston, SC.

Registering to be a judge isn’t easy. The opportunities to judge quickly disappear in less than 24 hours when the web-based registration system is activated, and in the first 24 hours, judges may register for only one event (local or regional). When I connected to the system on the first day of registration, I signed up for the local event in North Charleston, SC, which is near my home. On the next day, when I tried to sign up for another event, a few locations still had judging spaces available, but they were too far away to consider.

The cooking teams set up side-by-side in several parallel rows..

The local events are limited to 30 cooking teams. After 40 judges have registered, a waitlist for 10 more judges is available before the registration is closed. I felt fortunate to be registered for at least one event, although I had been hoping to sign up for more than one.

The cooking teams quietly prepare the barbecue for the competition.

Like other local events, the North Charleston cookoff had $10,000 in prize money, including $2,000 awarded to Big Dick's BBQ as the grand champion. The other five overall high-scoring teams, who advance to the regionals, also won prize money. In addition, the top five teams of each category – chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket – won cash prizes as well. At each regional contest, the prize money awarded doubles to $20,000. Finally, the national championship has a total prize purse of $150,000, and the grand champion receives $50,000. The high amounts of cash prizes definitely motivates teams to register, succeed, and advance.

A member of a cooking team tends to his fire.

Smoke plumes were rising skyward in still air when I arrived at the event site in North Charleston about 10 minutes before the mandatory judges’ meeting. Michael McDearman, series director of the Sam’s Club National Tour, welcomed the judges and emphasized how significant the tour events are in determining a national champion. He also said that $2.5 million have been awarded in total prize money since the tour began in 2011. He indicated that he is “on the road” about nine months of the year to coordinate the tour events as they are held. From February through September, McDearman is changing locations to be at each local and regional event.

Employees of Sam's Club offer samples of beef brisket to spectators.

Although McDearman is the series director, each event is run by a representative of the Kansas City Barbeque Society. For the North Charleston event, Randy and Carol Bigler, whom I had met last year at a contest in Asheboro, NC, were the KCBS representatives. After the contest, he told me that they try to manage about 20 contests each year for KCBS.

Members of Yes, Dear BBQ (which placed third overall and advances to the regional event)
relax after all meat entries have been turned in for judging.

For me, judging at the North Charleston event was rewarding. I sampled some of the best barbecue chicken and pork that I have ever tasted. I also got to observe an event where cooking teams are focused only on submitting their best entries and are not distracted by selling food to the public. However, the day in June brought temperatures that reached 99 degrees. To combat the heat I drank the most water ever at a barbecue contest: four bottles. Water, routinely available to judges to refresh their mouths after they have evaluated an entry before they taste the next one, was very important on this day just to keep cool.

Judging at a Sam’s Club BBQ National Tour event gives me more appreciation for the effort by cooking teams as they prepare for a contest. If I participate as a judge again, I hope that it will be a regional event, so that I can judge the cooking skills of the top local teams who are competing for the chance to advance to the national championship.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Traveling to the Bull City

Durham, NC, is not that far from my home. When I learned about the Bull City Barbecue Classic Cookoff, I was interested in participating for several reasons. Being at the event would give me the opportunity to experience an event that is still developing, work with several highly regarded barbecue experts, evaluate the value that a sanctioning organization provides, and develop more completely my judging skills.

Cooking teams set up on the grounds of the Durham County Stadium.

First, the event is still in its infancy. It started in 2012 with five cooking teams and three judges. Led by Renee Brown, the contest organizer, the cookoff has attracted more cooking teams in each subsequent year. This year 20 teams signed up to compete (and 19 did). For judges, Renee had put out a call in her network and recruited 19, a few who had been judges for her last year. Even as the cookoff has grown, it still limits teams to cooking two meats (pork ribs and barbecue), unlike other competitions that typically also include chicken and beef brisket.

Smokin' Joe's BBQ was one of the 19 teams competing for contest awards.

Bob Garner, BBQ expert,
judges one of the ribs.
Next, I recognized several names in the “barbecue world” or media who had committed to judge and whom I would enjoy getting to know. One was Bob Garner, author of several books about North Carolina barbecue and traditional cooking, who is also a well-known pitmaster and connoisseur of N.C. barbecue. Another was Graham Wilson, who organizes the Peak City Pig Fest annually in Apex, NC, and in four short years has taken that event from being a dream to becoming one of the top N.C. contests sanctioned by Kansas City Barbeque Society. In addition, Anthony Wilson, news anchor and reporter for WTVD, the ABC TV affiliate in central N.C., was returning as a judge in Durham.

Anthony Wilson (right) returned to the cookoff again this year as a judge.

Another intriguing aspect of the Bull City Cookoff is that it is not sanctioned by any professional barbecue society such as KCBS, although Brown eventually hopes to make the transition to a sanctioned contest. Because all events that I have attended have been KCBS-sanctioned, being in Durham gave me the opportunity to see how judges perform who haven’t completed a uniform training program or don’t share a set of formally published rules. Although the judges did well, I easily recognized the value that a sanctioning organization provides.

Coookoff judges take their responsibilities very seriously.

Because the cookoff is not sanctioned, it attracted a wide variety of cooking teams. Some were had never competed before, and their equipment was quite basic. Others had very expensive setups, vans, and trailers; they also displayed trophies to show off their past successes. As the public entered, some teams were well-prepared to sell their barbecue and sauces, while other teams looked on and observed how they could improve their operation the next time that they competed.

Smoking Dave's shows off racecar,
trophies, and new trailer.
People Choice's trophy went again
to Smoking Dave's, also the winner
in 2012, 2013, and 2014.

The cookoff also helped develop my table captain skills. Several days before the event, Brown had asked if I would explain the procedures to the judges at the start of the competition and serve as table captain as the samples were distributed to judges for evaluation. Although a table captain at a KCBS-sanctioned event serves only six judges, two volunteers helped me stay on schedule.

A cooking team keeps the grill hot with barbecue to sell to the public.

The Bull City event achieved the purpose of a cookoff: encourage teams to compete and promote barbecue as a culinary technique and sport. I look forward to watching as the cookoff continues to grow and eventually transitions to a formally sanctioned contest.

The line formed early for people interested in attending the cookoff;
admission was $5 per person.