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.

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