My barbecue judging journey started almost ten years ago when a cook shared a competition rib with me. We were in Fairfield, California, at the West Coast BBQ Championship. One bite of his rib and I was over-taken with emotion. Within a year after that life-changing moment, I was a rookie sitting in a judging tent awaiting the first meat entry to judge. I recall being in my blue KCBS polo shirt, holding my yet unsigned judge’s verification logbook. Kelly and Kathleen McIntosh, now KCBS representatives, were my classmates. We took our KCBS judging class together and our instructor was former KCBS Vice-President and founder of the KCBS CBJ program, Ed Roith. Who would have imagined how far we would have come in ten years? Back then, KCBS was a much smaller organization. My verification record bears the signature of KCBS founder, Carolyn Wells. I wish I had known at the time how important people like Carolyn and Ed were to BBQ. Maybe I would have worked up the gumption to talk with them a bit. I think judging back then was a lot easier. There weren’t any websites or waiting lists to judge. If you’re willing to travel to get to the contest, you pretty much got in. We also weren’t in the spotlight so much. I don’t think the acrimony between cooks and judges was as bad as it can get these days.
As a molecular biologist, I spent my days squirting around tiny amounts of clear liquid in the hopes that small rays of light would appear when and where it should. That’s molecular diagnostics in a nutshell. It can take years for a product to get launched, if ever. That’s why it feels so refreshing to have a hobby that is immediately gratifying and tangible. I love work but talking about it can put a halt to a perfectly fine cocktail party conversation. Tell them you develop kits that measure the level of HIV in people’s blood and you hear an uneasy silence. Tell them you judge BBQ and the entire room will want to ask you questions. Well, everyone except the vegetarians cringing on the other side of the room. It’s all good. So what does it feel like to judge BBQ? The first thing you have to do is signup for a contest via mail or email. Today, that usually requires some preparation as contests can fill up with more judges than they need. With the Internet, you can sign up online for some contests. For example, JudgeBBQ.com is a judging signup website run by Kevin Keeling. Judges can register as members and sign up for contests. If you sign up early enough, you are promised a spot. The entire process is automated. If a contest organizer doesn’t want to go that route, you can contact the organizer directly, or fill out an electronic or paper form and send it in. Accepted judges are sent confirmation letters a few weeks in advance. Not every organizer is organized but most try to be. Some contests can be within an hour’s drive from your home. Others can be several hours drive. Still others will require a plane ride and a drive to get there. I’ve done all three. Most contests will require judges to show up at 9 or 10 a.m. on Saturday. That’s 2 to 3 hours before turn-ins which is typically chicken at noon. Once you show up, you check in with the contest officials and wait for final roll call. A look around the room, and you’ll see the friends you’ve made from previous contests. If you’ve judged a while, you’ll likely know most in the room. If you’re a newbie, the room will be filled with your future judging friends. The pace is upbeat and jovial. Everyone in the room is excited to see friends and eat some amazing BBQ.
I’ve been judging long enough to watch my friends retire, have babies, become widows, and recover from heart attacks and car accidents. You remember these moments as clearly as you would for your own family. BBQ people are a compassionate bunch and when we gather at contests, we are also catching up with each other’s lives. We will listen to your stories, nod our heads up and down and sympathize with your circumstances. It’s hard not to develop friendships. And if you’re good at accepting people for all of their idiosyncrasies, this is the place for you. You will be surrounded by welders, mechanics, engineers, construction workers, nurses, policemen, firemen, accountants, software engineers, pilots, lawyers, managers and everyone else in between. People come from all walks of life and offer all kinds of opinions. It’s totally different from what you are used to Monday through Friday and in a very refreshing way. No one is complaining about work. No one is bored. We are all here because we chose to be. This is our hobby and our passion. Watch out for Part 3 for a glimpse into what happens after check in on Saturday mornings.