Saturday, April 29, 2017

Judging in the Barbecue Capital of the World

If a city can claim to be the capital of barbecue, it is Lexington, NC. It proclaims to have more barbecue restaurants per person than any other city, and its own barbecue style is recognized worldwide. For many years its barbecue festival has attracted thousands and been one of the country’s most popular food events. When Lexington began holding a barbecue cookoff, I had to be a judge.

Full-size ornamental pigs, such as this one in front of the historic courthouse, throughout Lexington proclaim the city as the Barbecue Capital of the World.

In addition to celebrating barbecue, the BBQ Capital Cookoff is helping to revitalize the historic train depot area of Uptown Lexington. Where textile, furniture, and other manufacturing activities once dominated the city’s center, dilapidated and vacant structures are being removed or renovated to serve new retail, restaurant, entertainment, and other mixed-use purposes. Held in the district on the grounds of the new city amphitheater, which opened just days before the 2017 cookoff, the contest has become a signature event for Uptown Lexington and its proceeds are reinvested into the Uptown district.

The city newspaper promotes the cookoff on its front page.

The cooking teams spread out on the grassy areas next to the amphitheater, and the judges met in the historic depot by tracks still active. The quietness of the judging process was intermittently interrupted by the sounds of six trains -- a passenger train heading north from Charlotte and five freight trains, all heading south – rumbling by on an adjacent track.

Banners about the cookoff adorn Main Street in Uptown Lexington.

Since it began in 2011, the cookoff has continued to gain local interest and enthusiasm. The event has usually included two days of music that now can be showcased professionally on the stage of the new amphitheater. Last year, a motorcycle ride to raise awareness about autism was rescheduled to be the first official event of the cookoff, and this year the ride began and ended at the cookoff location. In addition, another new attraction was added: a car show (with 15 trophies).

The smokestack of the former Dixie Furniture Co. overlooks antique vehicles participating in the car show.

The contest attracted an eclectic assortment of judges. A couple were novice judges; one was participating in his 100th event; several others had already judged at more than 100 (one at 126). One judge was scheduled to judge at 30 contests this year. The entries of the 38 teams at the cookoff were unusually superior, perhaps because experienced teams were enticed to compete by almost $16,000 in prize money.

Piggy charts guided judges to the right seats.

When I first attended the barbecue festival 10 years ago, Lexington instantly became one of my favorite destinations. Plus two of my favorite barbecue restaurants -- Lexington #1 and The Barbecue Center – are among the 16 in the city that preserve the heritage of cooking pork shoulders slowly over hickory coals. 

Cooking teams set up on grassy areas in the depot district where manufacturing business once stood.

The cookoff similarly honors the city’s barbecue traditions. Although Lexington is only one of the 25 places where I’ve been judge at a cookoff, it’s definitely a favorite.

Mcadoo Heights BBQ took home the trophy for the Grand Champion.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Judging in a Fire Museum

As unlikely as a fire museum is for being the site of serious barbecue judging, it works just fine for the annual Firehouse BBQ Cookoff in Kings Mountain, NC. For more than twenty years, the firefighters of this small city (population just over 10,000) have organized a celebrated barbecue cookoff.

An antique fire truck is on display at the museum where the judges met.

As one of the first events each year, the contest brings out teams who are starting their competitive schedule for the year. Because the cookoff was one of the first held in North Carolina sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, it has attracted very experienced cooking teams for several years. An additional enticement for the pitmasters is that the cookoff is one of the 11 events in the Old North State BBQ series, which offers additional prizes in addition to the prize money awarded in the contests.

Cooking teams set up in the interior of the Deal Park walking track.

At this year’s cookoff, 49 teams competed. In addition to attracting very competitive cooking teams, the Firehouse BBQ Cookoff also brings in very experienced judges. For this year, many judges were master judges, and a few had even participated at more than 100 contests.

Muttley Crew placed first in the ribs category, which propelled it to a top 10 finish.

The Historical Kings Mountain Fire Museum, which opened in 1976 and illustrates the colorful history of firefighting equipment over several decades, has hosted the competition for 21 years. The cooking teams set up in the interior of the Deal Park walking track, which is adjacent to the museum.

A large sign makes sure that the cooking teams know the turn-in times.

After conducting a barbecue cookoff for more than two decades, the firefighters know what they are doing. The event is well planned and organized, and it will be the place to be in April for both cooking teams and judges for years to come.

All is quiet at the turn-in table until the teams bring their chicken entries, the first category to be judged.

A box of large trophies is ready for the awards ceremony.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Improving an Agricultural Celebration by Adding a Whole Hog Cookoff

Homegrown in the Park, an annual festival in Burlington, NC, was begun by the Farm Bureau of Alamance County as a way to “bring the farm to the city” by holding a farm day in a city park. Previously, the bureau had offered tours of neighboring farms to educate the public about local agriculture.

Several teams created an inviting atmosphere at their cook sites that added to the ambiance of the festival.

The county has become increasingly urban, led by the growth of Burlington, its largest city, and Graham, the county seat. In recent decades, the population of the county has grown by as much as 20 percent. Farms have been lost as new residential areas have been created. Because many residents live in the county but work elsewhere, it is often described as a “bedroom community,” and appreciating its agriculture is important because the number of its farms have declined by 70 percent over the last century.

Impressive trophies were taken home by the finalists.

In its first three years, the festival drew increasingly large crowds by offering educational exhibits and displays to celebrate local agriculture -- music and free food were additional enticements to attend. For its fourth year, the festival was expanded to include a whole hog cookoff, and sanctioning by the N.C. Pork Council was obtained so finalists could advance and compete in the state championship, the culmination of the Whole Hog Barbecue Series.

Barbecue chopped by a team after being judged was served on plates to the public.

The whole hog cookoff seems to be exactly what the festival needed to complete its celebration of the county’s agricultural traditions and heritage. Barbecue from the cookoff is served to the public, and nothing brings out a crowd like excellent barbecue cooked by competitive teams. For its first cookoff, the festival attracted 14 teams. Although several had not competed in the Whole Hog Barbecue Series before, they all produced superior barbecue. The three other judges and I were impressed with how most pigs were scored high in areas of skin crispness, brownness, moisture, and appearance.

The pig cooked by Blue Pig BBQ, now in shambles after being judged, took home first-place honors.

With a whole hog cookoff now a major part of the festival, Homegrown in the Park is guaranteed to continue to grow and attract large crowds as its organizers and sponsors celebrate local agriculture.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

A New Cookoff to Start a Tradition

Duplin County in North Carolina is well known for its wines, history, museums, and festivals. After having its first whole hog cookoff that promises to be an annual tradition, the county -- big in square miles (ninth largest in the state) but small in population (58,000) -- will also be known for its competition-quality barbecue.

Showtime's Legit, the first team to be judged, awaits arrival of the judges.

The Duplin County Events Center, which hosts a variety of tourism and agricultural events, is the home to concerts, competitions, shows, tournaments, exhibitions, and other activities. The N.C. Muscadine Festival, which has been held annually each fall since 2005, was the first major event held at the center. To balance the schedule by holding a major event in the spring, a whole hog cookoff has been added. Although excellent barbecue is enticement enough to attract a sizable crowd, the organizers have also included bluegrass music and craft beer sampling. The event’s name says it all: Blue, Brew, and Cue Festival.

A pig looks perfectly prepared before the judges begin their inspection.

Because the organizers achieved sanctioning by the N.C. Pork Council for the festival, they were assured that the event would attract competitive cooks. Although the cooks want to earn bragging rights as finalists and win a festival trophy, they also want to qualify for the annual statewide championship held later in the year. When at least 10 cooks participate in a local contest sanctioned by the Pork Council, the finalists are eligible to advance and compete in the championship.

I check a temperature gauge as part of the evaluation.

For the inaugural cookoff, 20 competitors registered. Many cooks earned high scores – an indication of how competitive an inaugural contest can be. Although a few novices to the Whole Hog Barbecue Series were competing in a sanctioned event for the first time, several had been competitors in past years and achieved success in those contests. At least one competitor -- Roy Parker -- had won the annual Whole Hog Barbecue Championship (2006), and he clearly was confident. When I visited his site with the other judges for this festival, I thought the skin crispness -- one of the scoring criteria of a cookoff -- of his pig was excellent.

After judges walk away from a cooker, the pig is in shambles from the inspection.

The pigs were provided by Smithfield, a festival sponsor, to the cooks the evening before judging was conducted. Although they varied in weight from about 94 to 116 pounds, they were uniformly moist after having been cooked overnight, a phenomenal accomplishment for the cooks because contest rules prevent them from injecting the pigs or adding any sauce.

I enter the scores for one team before leaving its site.

For the contest, I teamed up with two long-term judges, Charlie Martin and Timmy Evans. Martin had been a judge at the Newport Pig Cookin’ Contest in 2016 and was one of the judges whom I shadowed as part of my certification by the Pork Council.

After the pigs are judged, meat from the cookers is brought in bins to festival volunteers who prepare for selling barbecue plates to the public.

For a first-time event, the Blue, Brew, and Cue Festival was well planned and organized. The combination of music, beer, and barbecue is a winner and should serve as a strong foundation for future cookoffs. Duplin County should soon be able to add excellent barbecue to its other tourism credentials – how appropriate for the county that has more hogs than any other in the United States. 

Photographer Katherine Clark takes pictures as I and the other judges evaluate a pig.

Note: During the judging process, I was followed by photographer Katherine Clark, who took pictures to accompany an article that I had written for OutreachNC magazine.