Thursday, May 11, 2017
I was walking south along Elk Grove-Florin Rd. Saturday morning, Elk Grove police and their volunteers began closing the road. Big orange cones were being placed across intersections and side streets. People were arriving and setting up their chairs on the sidewalk for the Western Festival Parade was about two hours away. As I crossed Valley Oak Drive I saw the first of several small white signs placed every 100 yards or so next to the curb – “Amgen Tour of California, Route, May 13” That’s the next big event in our city and it is only a week away, with Stage 3 of the women’s race starting in Elk Grove Regional Park. As I walk along the athletic fields at Elk Grove High School I get my first sniff of why I am heading to the Park this day – it’s the aroma from the barbecue competitors’ smokers, all preparing for the fourth annual Elk Grove Western Festival Barbecue Championship. I’ve been asked to be a judge. A lover of good ole Kansas City barbecue, I immediately accepted the invitation to judge when asked by Ed Anhorn, the event organizer, a couple weeks prior. It would be my first experience at judging any kind of food event, but with my experience of knowing good barbecue when I taste it I figured I could catch on. What I didn’t know until I arrived at the park and started walking by each competitor’s cooking station was how serious and passionate these participants are. Likewise, the members of the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) which sanctions this event and many others like it across the country, are equally as devoted to this unique type of competition. There are many professional entrants to the Western Festival contest and most of them are not Elk Grove residents. They have driven in from all of the Western States to be a part of this. They’ll pay around $250 each to show off their culinary treatment of chicken, pork ribs, beef brisket and pork shoulder. There’s $7,000 in prize money to be earned. The winner earns $2,000. And, right alongside of these Pitmasters are those who paid $125 apiece to compete in the “backyard” or the amateur category of the competition. Because I am judging this, I stop to take a few photos but try to avoid fraternization with the guys because, well, that’s something a judge does. Right away when arriving at the judging tent I meet with Master Judge Scott Simpson. He’s in town from Antioch and wears his KCBS badge that identifies himself as a certified barbecue judge. We begin a 20-minute orientation session to tell me what I need to look (and taste) for when judging begins right at noon. He tells me because I am a novice, I will join the table for judging the backyarders. The pros get their meat judged by the pro judges. There are about 30 of them in attendance. Like the grillers, they came to Elk Grove from all over the state and Oregon. I find out there will be six of us at one table and a table captain. When the meat is being judged we have to be completely silent, no “yums” or any noises at all to give away my impression of what I just bit into. “There is no comparison judging,” Simpson explains. “Each entry is to be judged by its only uniqueness, each one on its own.” There are three standards we judge: appearance, taste and tenderness. In each of the three categories we give the entry from as high as a “9” (excellent) to as low as a “2” (unedible). The categories are weighted a little differently with taste getting the highest mark. I am then told that we will have a bottle of water, crackers and parsley to cleanse our palette between samples. It is expected we use our fingers and hands to eat each entry, but Simpson encouraged me to only take two to three bites. “Take the second bite from a different part of the sample, because if the area of your first bite is undercooked, the second area may be cooked perfectly,” he explained. The judging is run by Ian Schmidt, a KCBS-certified master judge, from Fair Oaks. He leads a judges meeting and we then listen to an audio recording from KCBS that explains all the rules of the contest. Then taking a page from jury duty, we all have to stand up, raise our right hands and swear we won’t cheat or do anything that would remove the integrity label from the event. I have to giggle a little internally, but realize these people live to grill and its their pastime. For a few it’s their way of living. Before “turn in time” I have a chance to meet the other judges at our table. Bob Prevost is a dispatcher for Allegre Trucking in Lodi and has a booming voice. I tell him he should be in radio. Al Simons is like me, a novice, but his background is interesting. He’s a corporate catering chef and has worked in corporations such as Google. He currently lives in Tracy. Simons got certified through KCBS and wants to do more judging in the future. Prevost has much experience in both grilling and judging. I learn something from him – there is a difference between grilling and barbecuing. You and I grill. We are cooking in our backyards on a pretty hot fire. “Barbecuing is low and slow,” Prevost explains. He says the competitors we are judging arrived the previous day around noon and spent the afternoon setting up their remote kitchens. Sometime the evening before, the smokers were lit and the meat was then seasoned or marinated and the cooking began. Most of the meat we would eat had been cooked for somewhere around 12 to 14 hours. The exception to that is chicken. “It just doesn’t hold,” Prevost said. “It’s the last thing cooked.” I then meet Louise Elsea from Alameda and her friend, Greg Strom from El Cerrito, who talk about how they travel the country during the summer judging in similar KCBS events. “We’ll go to Calgary and Puerto Rico this year,” Elsea said. She talks about having good hygiene such as short finger nails and washing hands frequently. And, then I am told never to do something – lick my fingers after chewing a sample. I am upset because I am a finger licker when I eat barbecue. But, she explains, it’s a sanitary issue because I will be touching samples in the box during competition. I get it. Now, I’m ready. Backyarders enter only two samples: chicken and ribs. The chicken is first and we look at each of the entries. They are neatly placed in a Styrofoam box in a bed of greens, mainly bib lettuce and parsley. The selections all look delicious and smell delicious. One chicken entry looks, well, sloppy in the box. The sauce is runny. It gets a low mark from me, a 5. We then place one piece from each of the boxes onto an official KCBS placemat. Each chicken entry is a thigh. I was told later that’s because it cooks more consistently than the breasts. That one entry with the poor presentation cooked breasts. When I bit into their selection, it was a mess. Undercooked. I had a flashback of Chef Gordon Ramsey from the TV show “Hell’s Kitchen” yelling, “It’s RAW!” and throwing the food. I was much calmer. Marked it a 5 for taste. The others I gave sevens and eights. There was one, though, that was just plain delicious and had a sweet flavor in it s sauce. It got a nine from me. I cleaned my very messy fingers, refrained from licking my fingers, and got ready for the ribs. When they came in, you could really smell the wonderful aroma. The table captain presented each box. I gave nines to the three entries that put a glaze on their sauce. That was beautiful. And, those three earned my highest marks in taste and tenderness, too. That was fabulous! I paid them high compliments on my comment cards. We were finished and my first judging competition filled me up. That was my lunch. I walked back through competition row, remembering the words of advice Elsea told me, “Afterwards, no talking about what happened in the judging tent. If asked, tell them, ‘It was delicious.’” Prevost added: “What happens in the tent, stays in the tent.” So, my congratulations to the winners of the Elk Grove Western Festival BBQ Championships, Son of Smoke with a mark of 687.3600. Two years in a row that team has won the Elk Grove championship. Second went to Big B’s Down-N-Dirty BBQ with a 685.1544. Third overall went to Smokin Mo’s BBQ at 669.0628. The entire results can be found on the KCBS website, kcbs.us.