My journey into competition barbecue is one of the many slippery steps I fell down to where I am now...again this was one that happened by accident/ circumstance/ happenstance!
I was aware of competition barbecue having attended a course on how to prepare and cook competition barbecue by arguably the UK's most successful barbecue team 'Bunch of Swines' with Ed and Emma. I came across their course and was gifted it as a present, despite the fact I had no real idea (or intent) to go into competition barbecue. I used the course to improve my general skills and understanding of American style barbecue (which would come in handy when I then ended up helping a competition team, leats of all my skills in being the honorary 'Parsley Bitch'...more later!)), and made some great friends that I have continued to see on the competition barbecue circuit since.
This, at the time, was the end of it. I then decided with a buddy that we would go to Q Fest in Devon for the weekend to see, as spectators, a barbecue competition. During the week prior my buddy cancelled on me so I decided that I would go alone but offer my services to anyone who wanted them; the organisers, the teams, anyone really, via the Facebook group for the competition. I was seconded into the "Tea and Briskets" team and helped Malcom cook that weekend, and then again at several other competitions over the years. When it came to it, I couldn't afford the time away and the money to go 'all in' on competing, so I decided to become a barbecue judge instead..the subject of a different blog post.
So what is competition barbecue? Well, essentially cooking barbecue that is then judged, and there are winners and those who are not winners(!). The criteria depends on which authorising/ governing body, one of the most prolific worldwide is the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) format. They have fairly strict regulations that aim to standardise the playing field and mean their format can be run worldwide, but comparatively. In the KCBS format teams are required to cook four meats; chicken (can be any part of the chicken); ribs (must be pork ribs (some rules apply like they must contain a bone but can be spare ribs or baby back ribs); pork shoulder (this must be shoulder and must weight at least four pounds) and; brisket (beef). All teams must turn in all entries (if they are to be in with any chance of winning), and are turned in at specific times and in a specific order wherever you are competing in KCBS throughout the world: 1200-chicken; 1230-ribs; 1300-pork; 1330-brisket. The scoring system is to judge blind so the judges have no idea which team has turned in which entry, indeed if the turn in appear to be 'marked' in any way (including 'sculpting' the meat into a unique shape, 'marking' the box with some sauce in a specific area or pattern and the presence of a 'foreign object' such as a piece of tin foil or napkin) then the entry is disqualified.
Preparing and cooking competition barbecue takes a long time, usually starting Friday night with a party...this is essential preparation! Saturday is the meat being inspected by the event organisers and prep time, which involves all sorts of activities like injecting, taking skin off chicken to scrape (to get that 'bite-through' texture) only to places the scraped chicken skin back on again, and the preparation of turn-in boxes with 'regulation garnish' (parsley is allowed but many varieties of lettuce are not!), one of my esteemed roles as the 'newbie' to the team was that of 'Parsley Bitch', carefully picking and preparing the parsley to present the meat in the turn in boxes! My method is to sit in a comfy chair, well the best one I can find, with a stable lap and an alcoholic drink nearby and ideally some company, although being the Parsley Bitch can a mildly meditative/ therapeutic activity!
Once turned in, the judges score on appearance, taste and tenderness, and against the KCBS standard or profile rather than personal preference (there is a judges course to prepare judges for this important role). Scores are collated and then an algorithm is applied that weights the three scoring criteria, flavour is weighted the heaviest (most important), then tenderness then appearance (least important).
Prizes are presented for each meat category, and then there is an overall winner, the Grand Champion (or GC) and runner up, the Reserve Grand Champion (or RGC). There are prizes for the GC and RGC but the real prize is bragging rights to having the best barbecue judged independently by a blind taste from trained barbecue judges.
Competition barbecue is a very 'American' endeavour, and there are nuances that other nations, Brits included would find amusing. It is a micro-community, akin to any 'hobbyist' endeavour in the UK (and we have a few!) but essentially like-minded people with an interest in barbecue from a variety of backgrounds having a laugh in a field, cooking barbecue and having a good time.