Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ramblings: Responsibilities of Judges

This is our first guest article on the three facets of BBQ competitions. We appreciate Gary taking the time to offer his perspective. Gary is a KCBS certified barbecue judge who previously spent two seasons as an assistant on an award winning competition team and is now in his third year "judging" barbecue at restaurants across the Northeast for his website www.pigtrip.net. He probably spends twice as much time thinking about barbecue as he does eating it, judging it and writing about it.

The Responsibility of Judging

by Gary Goldblatt


(Hudson Valley Ribfest)

KCBS judges have a pretty good deal. Arrive at the site after 10:00AM, pay no admission and eat some of the best barbecue on the planet. It's a privilege, and with that privilege comes responsibility. Any responsible barbecue judge must do the following:

Show up. It seems like stating the obvious, but simply showing up is a key requirement. The increasing frequency of no-shows at contests I've attended indicates that it's a requirement far too many judges don't take seriously enough. I take “showing up” to also include confirming with the contest organizer that you're coming or providing ample notice that you're not coming. It means taking the organizer's cell phone number in case something happens on the way there. It also means not showing up at teams' sites and fraternizing the day of the contest. It means showing up sober, showing up hungry and showing up with the proper mental attitude to judge upwards of two dozen meat entries.

View and taste the meat. This seems like another instance of stating the obvious, but the entries need to be tasted. By tasting, I mean more than one bite. I have no problem with judges who store the leftovers in coolers and take them home after the contest as long as they've done their due diligence during the contest. If you take one dainty bite and don't double-check that initial taste against a piece from the opposite end of the sample, or "play with the meat" to get a true sense of its tenderness, you're not really judging.

Score the meat. By scoring, I mean scoring according to the KCBS methods, where a top score of 9 is excellent, a 6 is average, a 4 is poor and a 2 is inedible. The dreaded 1 is reserved for disqualifications. And by scoring, I mean score what's presented—it's important to score without introducing personal bias. If you love chicken thighs and cook them because they're moist, you shouldn't score down chicken breast for appearance just because you think it's going to be dry. And if you hate cinnamon, you shouldn't score it down for taste just because it's cinnamon. If you taste cinnamon overload that overpowers the meat and obscures the sauce, go ahead and score it down. But if the cook integrated cinnamon into the profile by balancing it with complementary flavors, it should score well, even if it’s not your cup of (cinnamon-flavored) tea. There's no room for vigilante judges.

(Hudson Valley Ribfest)

The hardest thing for me in judging is not comparing entries. If I give the first chicken sample an 8 for flavor and the second one is even better, but not worthy of a perfect 9 score, a quandary arises. On one hand, I want to give it a higher score than the first one, but on the other hand, I don't want to give it a 9 if a better one comes along that truly deserves the 9. The correct answer is to forget about the first 8, score this one an 8 also, and be satisfied having made only one error, not two.

There's no need to rush. I'm typically the last judge to submit the scorecard at my table, because I handle the food, take up to four bites per sample and truly deliberate before committing to a score. This isn't a free lunch; it's important stuff and it should require some thought.

Discussing the food? That's forbidden during judging, encouraged after judging. I like to chat with the other judges after the sheets have been turned in, because I hear different viewpoints, and I always learn something that will help me become a better judge next time.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ramblings: Organizers Responsibilities

This is the first in a series of articles discussing the roles and obligations of members of the three categories of those intrinsically involved with BBQ Competitions. We will have guest articles from those offering their perspectives on Judging, Competing and Organizing. Today I’m offering my thoughts on organizing and running events.

**Photos are of the Hudson Valley Ribfest**

Event Organization: An Overview

(Competitors area Hudson Valley Ribfest)

Like most events, the primary responsibilities of an Event Organizer for a BBQ competition are to (in order):

1) Under promise and over deliver.

2) Ensure that things run as smoothly as possible for the principal guests (competitors and judges).

3) Provide a safe and secure environment for your visitors.

4) Without compromising 1 through 3, use the current event to build a platform for a better event the following year.

(My niece and mother enjoying the event)

Under promising and over delivering is not as hard as it may sound. Preparing as many amenities as possible in advance and announcing few of them prior to the start of the event will leave your guests pleasantly surprised while simultaneously guarding against ill will if a planned amenity is not actualized. There is a constant allure of announcing as much as possible in an effort to entice more competitors and judges. Resist the urge. You need to strike a precarious balance of drawing in your guests and holding enough in reserve to ‘wow’ them during the event.

A serious dedication to preparation will help to smooth out any mole hills that you may run into during the event. Typical concerns are the most important and can be found on numerous checklists for Organizers. Checklists such as these will not only help you keep track of what needs to be done, but also when they should be done. They are often broken into dates for when things should be done (6 months out, 3 months out, 4 weeks out, etc.). The KCBS offers such a list and there are others on the internet.

Click here for an excellent example from the people at The BBQ Shack.

Asking questions of your attendees in advance and encouraging open communication will help eliminate what may be a minor hiccup for you, but would be a major concern for them. Do any of your attendees have a handicap that you can assist with? Can you recommend local butchers for those traveling from out of state? Does anyone near the venue rent smokers or grills? Where is the nearest hospital to the event? Are any of your attendees religiously observant? Should you check into local churches, synagogues, temples or mosques?

Onsite security is paramount at any event. The attendees should have access to you (or your associates), the sanctioning bodies representatives and any volunteers at all times. In an unsecured area there is a predilection for people to wander in and start to mingle. Usually these are good natured and curious people, but if they are not you need to have a plan with how to deal with them. Whether an uninvited guest is soliciting ‘donations’ from attendees, trying to get food from competitors or just getting straight out confrontational, you are responsible.

Hiring off duty police to help with security is always a good idea. On duty officers assigned by the local municipality is even better (here’s a tip: invite local politicians to attend and you will find local police much more amenable to your requests for assistance). Print up some tee shirts that say ‘staff’ or ‘security’. Key to the success of using volunteers is to make it very clear that their chief responsibility is to be a conduit of information to local authorities and to answer questions. Volunteers should NEVER get physically involved in any hostilities. Often the appearance of onsite security is enough to avoid any problems.

Non-physical confrontations between teams should be adjudicated as swiftly as possible by the organizer and the representatives of the sanctioning body.

Basic safety equipment should be kept on site. Fire extinguishers, first aid kits and ice should be kept on hand. On your registration forms, ask if any team members or judges have experience with CPR. Contact information to local hospitals should be available on site 24 hours a day. Firehouses should be alerted to the event prior to the start and inviting house members over for a meal is always a good idea.

(Vendors at Hudson Valley Ribfest)

Every event that you run should be a tool to make the next event better. Take copious notes. What could have gone better? What suggestions have been offered? What complaints have you heard? Keep track of attendance and collect as many photos as possible (ask teams to forward you the links to any pictures that they take). Without detracting from the attention you pay to your guests, ensure that your sponsors and vendors are as happy as possible. Solicit their opinions post event and use their comments to attract new sponsors. Include your demographic information as well as select photos. More and better sponsors means more and better amenities for next years guests.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

REVIEW: Big Bad Book of Barbecue

Al Roker’s Big Bad Book of Barbecue

Author: Al Roker

Photographs: Mark Thomas

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Page Count: 206

I would love to give this book an unreserved recommendation. I really would. Al Roker is possibly TV’s most avuncular personality. He seems to be a really nice guy and people that I know who have met him say that he is exactly as he comes across. Unfortunately, the Big Bad Book of Barbecue is only a marginal success.

The book clocks in at 206 pages and 100 recipes. The tone is conversational, with a solid introduction to the basics. And that is where the book excels. If this was entitled ‘Al Roker’s Introduction to Grilling and BBQ’ it would have been a raging success. Unfortunately, when you put this up against books by Ray ‘Dr. BBQ’ Lampe or Steven Raichlen it comes off a bit light. That’s not entirely fair to the author. In the introduction to the book he mentions that his qualifications for writing the book are similar to any other BBQ enthusiast.

If you know someone who has a mild interest in outdoor cooking and entertaining, this is the book for them. Easy to read, chock full of entry level advice and fairly diverse; the Big Bad Book of Barbecue is a great gateway product. The book starts with appetizers such as guacamole and salsa and quickly moves into meats such as burgers and steaks (about 5 pages of each). Covered in the rest of the book are desserts, drinks, rubs and sauces. Like I said, it’s pretty diverse. Sadly, the beautiful photos are found in two groupings instead of next to the dish they are representing.

If you are looking for tips on how to improve competition brisket, you’re looking in the wrong place. If you want something to give to the recent college grad that just purchased their first Weber kettle, you found your gift.


Sunday, August 17, 2008


BBQ Cousins

Although the most accurate definition of BBQ is that of meat cooked low and slow with wood, the wider colloquial definition is just as valid. For most people, BBQ is anything cooked in the backyard during the summer months. Keeping in mind that our definitions are a bit narrow, I thought that we should take a moment to go over the things that are affiliated with BBQ and the internet resources that support them.


Chili is probably the closest parallel to BBQ that you will find. Even closer to what we consider BBQ than grilling is, Chili has many of the same characteristics as BBQ. Like BBQ, chili has its hard core devotees that have narrow definitions of what ‘true chili’ is. There are chili competitions throughout the nation with governing bodies that sanction the events and employ strict rules for competitors.

Let me know if you have any other resources to recommend, but the best recipes that I have found for chili can be found here:


That is the recipe section for the Chili Appreciation Society International. They also sanction chili competitions, run the prestigious Terlingua International Chili Competition and have a scholarship program.

If you would like to purchase chili instead of making it yourself, I highly recommend Chili My Soul. You can order form their extensive menu and they will ship their chili to anywhere in the continental U.S.

Chili My Soul offers an amazing array of chili that is cooked for at least 30 hours. If you happen to be near their restaurant in California, stop by. If not, start ordering now. You won’t regret it.



Chili’s illegitimate step-brother is the bowl of beans. For your own safety, if you happen to be in Texas don’t conflate the two. Chili and beans are two very different things. For purists, if you like beans in your chili you are no longer eating chili.

Although refried beans are justifiably popular, for our discussion we are talking about a big old cast iron pot of beans. The type of stuff you would imagine would be served on the chuck wagon as cowboys settle down for the night.

Here are a couple of good resources to check out:




To see a BBQ enthusiast without a beer in hand is a rare occurrence indeed. From my own anecdotal research, there seems to be a direct correlation between the likelihood of being a true beer aficionado with being a serious BBQ enthusiast. The chances are pretty good that if you have an array of smokers, you also have home brewing equipment.

If you click on the ‘BBQ Links’ tab at the top of this page you will find a link to the BBQ Brethren and to the National BBQ News forums. They are both great resources. The closest analog in the Beer world would be the Beer Advocate forum. The members of the Beer Advocate forum are a group of knowledgeable, friendly folks who are willing to greet new members with open internet arms.


If you are looking for beer to go with BBQ, I recommend reading our own series of articles on BBQ and Beer pairings. Click on the ‘Pairing’ tab on the left hand column.


Friday, August 15, 2008

RAMBLINGS: Organizers, Judges, Competitors


If we look at competition BBQ as a bar stool, the three legs of that stool are the competitors, the judges and the organizers. No one leg is more important than the other. Unfortunately, outsiders wouldn't realize that from visiting the internet. With frightening regularity there is a one sided debate about the value of judges. If you visit BBQ forums with any regularity you will see the same arguments over and again. Judges are inept. Judges are poorly educated. Judges have no respect for the effort and expense of the competitors. Judges are only interested in getting some free food.

That is pretty much the only argument. I’m fairly certain that the debate is initiated by competitors that haven’t done as well as they would like. Most of their rhetoric is based on anecdotal evidence. So here we see a not infrequent pitting of two integral components of a successful event against each other.

Should the organizer feel slighted for not even being in the discussion? Where do they fit into the equation? Where is the event organizer love?

The discussions that take place regarding competitions are almost always dominated by the competitor, with regular interjections by judges. An extremely rare addition to the dialogue is made by or about the organizer. That’s the way it should be. The hierarchy of discussion is pretty much on target. The quantity of threads for each grouping is where it should be at. There are more competitors than judges and their involvement is more detailed, hence they have more topics to cover. There are far, far more judges than there are organizers, hence the dearth of organizer discussions.

Unfortunately, frequency of discussion can be falsely equated to primary importance. Regardless of word mass on forums, the three different functions are equally important to the success of any competition. Without the competitors, there would be no reason for anyone to be at a competition. Without the judges, we would have no way to determine how anyone did at the competition. Without the organizer there would be no competition.

Over the next couple of weeks we will be taking an in depth look at the role of the competitor, the judge and the organizer. What is expected of each, how someone adopts that role and what can each do to better themselves will be covered.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

REVIEW: Meyer's Elgin Sauce

Meyer’s Elgin Smokehouse Barbecue Sauce

Manufacturer Meyer’s Elgin Smokehouse
Website www.cuetopiatexas.com

Quality **** (4 out of 5)
Viscosity *** (3 out of 5)
Aroma *** (3 out of 5)

Appearance **** (4 out of 5)

Packaging *** (3.5 out of 5)

This sauce was used on pulled pork that was cooked low and slow over cherry wood. The opinions are both mine and Will Breakstone’s, owner and pit-master of Willie B’s Award Winning BBQ.

The conventional wisdom is that the most popular sauce for Texas BBQ is no sauce at all. It came as little surprise then that the base sauce from Meyer’s Elgin Smokehouse (see our earlier article on People’s Choice BBQ Awards) is a fairly mild sauce that is designed to alter the flavor profile of the meat as little as possible.

The sauce comes in a 17oz plastic bottle. I’m not sure if it is intentional, but the coloring of the label blends very nicely into the coloring of the sauce (which is a ‘rustish’ red color). The label features the corporate logo (if corporate is the right term for a family business) and the overall impact of the color schemes and the logo make for a distinctive look that separates the bottle from other sauces on the shelf.

Like the flavor, the aroma is mild in nature. Resembling tomato soup in aroma, the sauce has a pleasing bouquet. The coloring of the sauce is a light red, with touches of rust. Flakes of pepper are apparent in the liquid and the sauce is much less opaque than thicker, more intense KC style varieties.

As mentioned, the flavor of the sauce is mild. That is often a euphemism for tasteless. That’s not the case here. The sauce is extremely well blended, with no flavor overpowering the others. Slightly sweet with strong tomato overtones, the sauce might best be described as mellow. The pork that the sauce was tasted with retained its flavor while adding a new layer to the overall profile. Although halfway between a thick KC style and a vinegar based sauce in thickness, the sauce didn’t have any problems adhering to the meat.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

REVIEW: Bacon Salt

Bacon Salt


While the celebrity crowd has been dabbling in kabbalah, the good people at Bacon Salt have been spending time on another relic of medieval mysticism. The inventors of Bacon Salt have clearly been studying the works of Nicolas Flamel and Albertus Magnus, as they have developed the BBQ Philosophers Stone. They have used their alchemical wiles to create the taste of bacon without the use of pork. Forget lead to gold, this was the transmutation I have been looking for.

The obvious implications for BBQ enthusiasts would be the use as a rub or as an ingredient in a rub. The taste of bacon would be welcome on chicken or other poultry, whether grilled or smoked. I probably wouldn’t use it on pork or beef (well, maybe on burgers), but fish or vegetables might also be a great platform for Bacon Salt.

I recently used Bacon Salt on both an omelet and popcorn. I was amazed. It truly does taste like bacon. It doesn’t taste ‘bacon-y’. It doesn’t ‘resemble’ bacon. It doesn’t remind you of bacon. It tastes exactly like bacon. If there was any crunch and volume, you would swear it IS bacon. How do they do it? I neither know nor care. All I know is that I can jump over to www.baconsalt.com and buy more when needed.

As Bacon Salt grows in popularity, there will be weeping at the nations abattoirs. Pork farmers will be taking a hit and there will be rejoicing at the headquarters of PETA.

I’m going to be spending a bit more time with Bacon Salt to try to get a better handle on how much should be used and how to better apply the seasoning to various foods (for example, it is better used mixed into the eggs prior to cooking to prevent ‘clumping’). I’ll report back in a few weeks.

As an aside, I would like to mention that the manufacturers of Bacon Salt are very active in supporting our serviceman. They donate bacon salt to those serving in the military and they also have discount programs for soldiers or those purchasing for soldiers. Visit their site and click on ‘Operation BaconSalt’ for details.


Friday, August 8, 2008

REVIEW: Big Ed's BBQ Sauce

Big Ed's BBQ Sauce

Manufacturer Big Ed’s BBQ

Website www.bigedsbbq.com

Quality *** (3 out of 5)
Viscosity **** (4 out of 5)
Aroma *** (3 out of 5)

Appearance *** (3 out of 5)

Packaging ***** (5 out of 5)

This sauce was used on pulled pork that was cooked low and slow over cherry wood. The opinions are both mine and Will Breakstone’s, owner and pit-master of Willie B’s Award Winning BBQ.

Every product needs to catch your eye. There has to be a reason to give it a shot. You could be marketing a jar of ambrosia BBQ sauce that you climbed down from Mt. Olympus with, but if you can’t get someone to try it, it doesn’t matter.

Big Ed has this problem licked. This sauce had the most interesting package I have ever seen, hands down. Not even close. Not only was the packaging novel, it was useful. First off, the sauce came with an attached basting brush. The brush isn’t large enough for serious mopping on large amounts of meat in a smoker, but it’s perfect for a rack or two of ribs. The bottle itself is plastic and contains 16 oz of sauce. Both ends of the bottle can be used to extract sauce, one end as a squeeze bottle for direct application and the other as a larger opening for basting and brushing.

The sauce has a dark red coloring that is fairly opaque due to the thick viscosity. The sauce is clearly thick, but avoids the ‘sticky’ and ‘gloopy’ trend in some thicker sauces. I’ve mentioned before that I prefer thinner sauces, possibly due to my penchant for vinegar based products; but I enjoyed the feeling of the sauce on the tongue and its adhesion to the meat.

The aroma is very, very mild. I had to remove the sauce from the cooking area in order to reevaluate it. The strongest component seemed to be the vinegar, although this isn’t a vinegar sauce.

The taste is definitely mild and I would have preferred a flavor profile that was a bit more bold. The most pronounced flavor came from the tang of the vinegar. The sauce is sweet, but not overly so. Big Ed’s BBQ Sauce is mild in all respects. Although the flavors are muted, they are well balanced and rounded.

If you enjoy mild sauces and are intrigued by packaging innovations, give Big Ed a try.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ramblings: BBQ Elitism

BBQ Elitism

Are we elitists? Yeah, when I say ‘we’ I mean you and I. Us. The people that care enough about BBQ to go to sites like these. Have we climbed into a ‘low and slow’ ivory tower where we hold everything that isn’t competition-worthy in disdain? If we do hold these supercilious attitudes, is that necessarily wrong?

The closing of a friend's BBQ joint has me a bit depressed and prompted a bit of soul searching. Why is it that quality of food is not a prime criteria for success? I make it a point to visit every BBQ place that I can get to. To be honest, most are average at best. And yet many thrive.

I’ll admit up front that I will enter a BBQ chain with a chip on my shoulder. Instead of anticipating great food or at least going in with a neutral attitude I have a ‘convert me’ attitude. It usually doesn’t happen. I most often have to curb my tongue when I’m out with friends in a place like this. They are having a great time and are enjoying the food. I’m lamenting the lack of a smoke ring. They are enjoying the novelty of a rack of ribs while I’m searching for the tell-tale smoke flavor.

If I just ignored what I know the food could be, could I enjoy what it actually is? If I set my standards aside, would I find it as passable as a steak from Outback? Why does it annoy me so much that most people don’t realize that the majority of BBQ joints are the equivalent of Red Lobster in the seafood genre?

I think that the difference is that an Outback will be packed while Smith and Wollensky’s is also packed. Sadly, subpar BBQ is thriving while excellent places are either non-existent or are failing.

The virtues of true low and slow have been inculcated in us by competitions, experience and research. Maybe a tolerance for mediocrity has been lost.



Monday, August 4, 2008

CONTEST: Free Sauce!

August Free Sauce Contest

We apologize to both the sponsoring manufacturers and to the readers for the lapse in our monthly contests.

Let's make up for that now. This months contest is sponsored by the Wicked Good BBQ Company, makers of the Fork and Halo series of BBQ sauces. Their sauces are great and we appreciate their donating the sauce for this contest. I'm sure that the lucky winners will appreciate their generosity as well. I'm using their sauces on everything from steak to french fries.

One winner will receive one of each Fork and Halo sauce. Three other winners will win one bottle each. Each winner will also receive a BBQ calender.

How do you win? Simple. Click here to go to their site and take a look around. Send an email to info@homeofbbq and let me know how much a combo pack of their Original Sin, Heavenly Hickory and Fire and Brimstone sauces cost. Please put 'Sauce Contest' in the header.

Remember, one entry per contest per person.

Contest start date: 8/4/08
Contest end date: 9/1/08


Saturday, August 2, 2008

REVIEW: NFL Gameday Cookbook

The NFL Gameday Cookbook

By: Ray Lampe (aka Dr. BBQ)

Forward: Rich Eisen

Photographs: Leigh Beisch

Publisher: Chronicle Books


240 pages

Before you have an opportunity to enjoy the words and concepts in any book there is an initial impression made by the books presentation. Let’s start there. The book bears the imprimatur of the NFL on its cover, immediately telling the potential reader that the effort within has been found to meet their stringent standards. The NFL is approached for licensing and partnership deals on a daily basis. The vast majority of such proposals are rejected.

Continuing with the books fa├žade before we delve into the content, the photographs on the front and back covers are stunning. Skimming through the book you will notice that these are not exceptions, but are truly indicative of the book as a whole. The book is not a hardcover, but the cover and paper stock are thicker than most cookbooks and the cover is high gloss.

In addition to the many pictures of the recipes end results, the book contains photos of football players and cheerleaders. The majority of the photos are in full color and are certainly enticing. It is advised that you don’t peruse the book on an empty stomach. The photos are liable to induce serious hunger and salivation.

Along with the recipes, the book contains an entry for each NFL team. The team pages offer statistics on the franchise, information about their geographic area and a recommendation for a local BBQ joint. The theme of the book is entertaining for football related events. Whether it is your friends hanging out in your living room on a Sunday afternoon or tailgating with thirty thousand other fans in a stadium parking lot, Dr. BBQ has you covered.

In addition to the 150 recipes in the book, there are tips for equipment, cooking temperatures and a table of equivalents (translating measurements). The football standards are all in here. Appetizers, main courses, breakfasts, and five chili varieties (what’s football without chili?) all make an appearance. There are a few things that immediately come to mind when thinking food and football. Chips and dips, chili, wings and alcohol would seem to me to be representative of the spreads at most football get-togethers. All are covered in this book including the drinks. There are seven drink recipes, five of which have alcohol.

The readers are not just presented with a hodge-podge of recipes, but recommendations for the areas that you are cooking in. Each team section also contains an food-centric overview of the area and lists foods that the good Dr. would suggest for your game watching.

I’ve had the pleasure of owning and reading a number of Mr. Lampe’s books. His style of writing is much more conversational than other cookbook authors. It feels as if the introductions and asides in his books could be extracted to create the Dr. BBQ autobiography. In Ray’s case, this is a good thing. He has led an interesting life and is informative without being loquacious. His personal anecdotes inform the narrative as opposed to being the impetus of the narrative. Mr. Lampe writes in a colloquial and engaging style.

The recipes in the NFL Gameday Cookbook are sound, the strategies are insightful and the team sections are informative. If you are a fan of the NFL and enjoy getting together with friends for some food and the game, this is a can’t miss book.