Saturday, April 2, 2016

Shadowing Judges at a Whole Hog Cookoff

For some time, I’ve wanted to judge barbecue cooked in the “whole hog” style and add those skills to my credentials as a judge. The opportunity developed quickly when a training judge invited me to shadow him at a contest sanctioned by the North Carolina Pork Council.

Cooking whole hog has been part of the barbecue history and heritage in North Carolina for more than 300 years. To determine the best whole hog cooks, the N.C. Pork Council conducts a series of events from March through September in its Whole Hog Barbecue Series, which celebrates the history and artistry of whole hog cooking. Top finishers in each event are invited to compete in the fall in a Whole Hog Championship, which the Pork Council has conducted since 1985.

Chief cooks listen as Jim Bristle, contest president, explains procedures at organizational meeing.

At each event, judges certified by the Pork Council evaluate all the cooked pigs. The evaluation criteria are very specific, and a standard scoring sheet provides consistency and uniformity. More than taste is important. One significant criterion of judging a cooked pig is color, which should be golden brown. In addition to appearance and brownness, the pig is scored for skin crispness, meat and sauce taste, moisture, and completeness.

When a pig is not perfectly golden brown, points are deducted for charred areas.

For an event to be sanctioned by the Pork Council, at least 10 cooks need to participate. At the Newport Pig Cookin’ Contest in 2016 where I shadowed a training judge, 77 cooks participated (and more than 100 have participated there in previous years). Judging began promptly at 8 a.m. and lasted well past noon because the judges had so many pigs to evaluate. As a result, Newport, the longest-running and largest whole hog cookoff in North Carolina, is an excellent preparation for judging future events.

Judges conduct a thorough evaluation of each cooked pig.
Each team cooks a “whole hog,” which is split down the middle without head and feet. It weighs about 100 pounds, although I did see a couple that were much larger (114 pounds). At Newport, most teams cook with propane gas, although some traditional cooks use wood or charcoal.

The crowd enjoys barbecue by center stage in the Newport Community Park.

Watching the four judges poke, prod, flip, taste, and evaluate 77 cooked pigs gives me more experience than I expected and is a great starting point for future events. In addition, seeing the dedication and enthusiasm of the cooks gives me a greater appreciation for their importance in a barbecue competition. Now that I’m certified, I’m now looking forward to my first judging opportunity at a “whole hog” cookoff.

A young cook, hopeful of winning the $100 prize for best cook under the age of 18, watches as the judges evaluate his cooked pig.

Note: A related article that I wrote about the Newport Pig Cookin' was later published on line by the North Carolina Folklife Institute.

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