Competition Barbecue – Tailgating in Disguise

A couple weeks ago I had the absolute privilege of representing Tailgating Ideas at Kingsford University, which as you might imagine, was hosted by Kingsford Charcoal.  While Kingsford U is held throughout the year, and all over the country, the session that I attended was being held at Decatur Jaycess Riverfest, a BBQ Cookoff in Decatur, Alabama.  So it only seemed natural that we would learn the ins and outs of competition ‘cue and what it takes to be a champion.  Not only would we learn about this type of contest, we were actually going to participate in it.  So to get our team, “Pig and the Pen,” ready Kingsford had multiple-time World Champion Chris Lilly do the teaching.  We had a pretty packed schedule with different demonstrations, food samplings, and other events, so Chris had a tall task in front of him.  As you’ll see below he had a lot of knowledge to share.  Furthermore, the farther that we got into the curriculum and events, the more similarities I noticed between a cook-off and a tailgate party.

I suppose it would prudent to start with what a BBQ competition is.  A BBQ Competition, or Cook-Off, is pretty much what it sounds like it would be. It’s a contest to see who can make the best barbecue.  What the name doesn’t tell you is how detailed and serious these sorts of competitions are.   In almost every formal contest there are rules that must be followed.  In fact one of the most prevalent factors in competition BBQ is the scoring and rules system to be used.  For the purposes of Riverfest we would be using the KCBS (Kansas City Barbeque Society) format.  KCBS events feature 4 different types of meat: chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder(butt), and beef brisket.  The scoring for each of these meats takes into account 3 different attributes on a 1-9 point scale.  Those point values are defined as follows: 9 excellent, 8 very good, 7 above average, 6 average, 5 below average, 4 poor, 3 bad, and 2 inedible.  1 is an outright DQ and is only used when other rules are violated.   Taste, tenderness, and appearance are the attributes that are judged.  There is a weighting scale for each of those, but you only need to know that taste is the most heavily waited and appearance is the least.   Scores are determined by blind judging.  I’ll mention the judging again later as there are some other factors to consider.

Other key rules state that only wood or charcoal be used as fuel sources, all meat must be cooked on site, contestants must submit at least 6 separate and identifiable pieces of meat, contestants may not make their entry identifiable in any way, and turn in boxes only include meat and either parsley, green leaf lettuce, or cilantro as garnish.   If you want the full rule rundown you can see the full list here.

What I took away from all of this was that the biggest variable in this sort of event is the judging. The main reason for that is that the scoring is very much subjective.  What one judge thinks is the best thing he/she has ever eaten, the next one at the table may think it’s repulsive.  With that sort of parity determining who takes home the prize, Chris gave us some pointers.  First of all you have to come up with something that most people would like, or at least something that wouldn’t be offensive to a majority.  One specific area that came up was spice, aka heat.  If you think it’s too spicy, it’s too spicy.  Another thing to consider is that you’re probably not going to like your BBQ that much, and I’ll tell you why. First of all you’re not making it to suit your tastes, you’re making it for the judges. Another reason is that the judge gets one piece of your meat, and of that piece they’re only going to take one or 2 bites.  Knowing this, the goal is to pack as much explosive flavor into that bite as you can.  That, combined with the cloyingly sweet trend in the competition circuit, means that it will probably be too rich to enjoy a meal of it.  You may catch a break with the pork and brisket since they’re a little more focused on meat flavor, meaning they aren’t influenced by sauces as much.  We actually had our leftover pork and brisket in the form of tacos and it was quite delicious.

Tenderness is another key factor that most people, without prior knowledge, would miss the mark on.  We’ve all heard “those ribs are so good, they just fall off the bone,” as a signal that you’re in for some good eating.  The judges would disagree.  It makes sense if you think about the skill it takes to achieve a certain level of doneness.   Anyone can under-cook meat, and it isn’t any harder to overcook it either.  The goal is to get a bite to a point where you can take a bite easily, but that’s all you get.  If you bite and you have to work at it to get that bite chewed, it’s wrong.  If try and pick up the meat and it falls apart, that’s wrong too.  It may seem incomprehensible at 1st, but if you think about the precision of cooking to the perfect doneness it’s easier to understand.

Chris also explained the variance of BBQ in different regions.  If you asked someone in Western, NC what they want in their BBQ, it would not be the same as in Eastern, NC.  What works in Memphis, probably wouldn’t be looked at the same in Kansas City, and that probably wouldn’t work in St. Louis or Texas.  That’s why when Chris competes in different areas he adjusts his recipes and plans to reflect the preference of the region.  The key is to remember that you’re cooking for someone else.  There’s no rule that says you can’t make the same thing each and every time, but you’re looking for every edge you can get.  Oh and by the way, that edge, is how a lot of BBQ trends get started in the competition circuit.  If one guy is winning a lot by doing something special, it won’t be long before everyone else starts doing it.   Winners are often decided by fractions of a point, and that difference can mean going home with a couple grand, or with nothing at all.   Regardless of how well a judge is trained they will always be human, and if you don’t factor in the human element, you’re likely going to fall short.

After all of that info, you’re probably wondering just how it is that competition BBQ is like tailgating?  Personally I like to think that a BBQ competition is a tailgating in disguise.  For starters it’s all about outdoor cooking, which is what some would consider tailgating to be all about.  To perform that cooking, some of the most serious competitors have rigs and vehicles featuring all of the amenities of a proper kitchen, but many have a simple pull behind trailer filled with their gear.  Sound familiar?  Another similarity between the two is the atmosphere.  BBQ takes a long time to cook, and since competitors typically need to be on site the day before, there is a lot of time left for hanging out, socializing, and general good time having.   That certainly reminds me of tailgating.   Unfortunately I didn’t get any really great pictures of the festival site, but it was filled with row after row of grills, smokers, popup tents, coolers, folding chairs, beer, and all of the other things that we’d see in the parking lot.  Trust me when I say that, aside from the lack of asphalt, it was just like before the game.

Hopefully a few of you are asking “How can I get started?”  Those of you who are the diehards who bring the smokers out 8 hours before the game, this would probably be right up your alley, and you could probably get started pretty quickly.   From what I can tell you wouldn’t need too much more than the usual tailgater probably already has depending on the scale at which you tailgate.   If you’re more of a small scale tailgater you may have a little harder time getting started in this, but don’t be discouraged if it’s something you want to try.  Just remember that you really need a team to be successful at this, so you wouldn’t be carrying the load yourself.  Even though it may be far more involved, you still have to follow the deadlines and follow the rules, if you build a team of your closest tailgating buddies I have no doubt you’d find it to be an enjoyable time.  Add in the fact that you should practice and do a  run-through or 6 before actually competing, you have a perfectly viable excuse for needing to get together.

If you’d like to participate or see one of these things up close, KCBS has a visual map of upcoming and prior events you can use.

I’d like to close by thanking Kingsford for the opportunity to see and do all of this, as well as all of the others who made it possible.  There will be more posts related to this trip, but I was and am so grateful I wanted to express my appreciation.

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