This post comes to us courtesy of Brownie Futrell, a retired Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper publisher and barbecue expert.
When the subject is barbecue, there is actually very little that we Americans can agree upon.
We agree the word is a noun, and we all profess our love for all that is barbecue, but at that point, the raging debate begins.
The Big BBQ Debates
For many of us, pork is the meat of choice, but for our barbecue brethren in the Lone Star state, only beef brisket will suffice. And for a pocket of aficionados in the Owensboro, Kentucky, area, mutton is the prime cut.
We can’t agree on how to season our meat. In my home state of North Carolina, there is a territorial war between the East (tangy vinegar-based sauce) and the West (sweet ketchup-based sauce). South Carolina is unique for its mustard-based barbecue sauces, and northern Alabama is renowned for its white sauce, made famous by Big Bob Gibson. In Memphis alone, neighbors debate whether to serve ribs dry, with just a spicy rub, or dripping with a local wet mop.
For purists, true barbecue is cooked only over charcoal or hardwoods, yet some world-famous product comes out of my state cooked over gas, much to the horror of non-Tar Heels. We find our own indignation, however, when whole hog cookers beyond our borders skin their hogs before cooking, as crispy skin is a prized commodity and a symbol of culinary expertise in North Carolina.
Heck, we can’t even agree on how to spell our obsession.
Barbecue? Barbeque? BBQ? Cue? Que?
Here’s what we do know. In Europe, cultural and epicurean traditions are best expressed as the geography changes by differences in grape varietals and cheeses.
In the United States, these shifting traditions are best expressed by barbecue.
Our Barbecue Belt runs throughout the South and the lower Midwest, including the great state of Texas and its wonderful allegiance to its beef heritage, encompassing the holy trinity of barbecue cities–St. Louis, Memphis and Kansas City.
The Making of a BBQ Judge
For the past decade, I have had the opportunity to pursue my passion for barbecue by serving as a certified competition judge, having participated in events from Mississippi to New Hampshire. But it was an event in college that sealed my fate as a hopeless devotee to my chosen avocation.
As a member of a fraternity at Duke, I once sent a couple of younger brothers to the grocery store with the express instruction to buy the “nastiest” thing they could find that we would suggest our pledges eat later in the day. It was to be, mind you, a bonding experience for the pledges, not hazing (my story and I’m sticking to it). The brothers, both of whom were from north of the Mason-Dixon line returned, very excited and proud of their shopping abilities. They had purchased something they had never even heard of, something that would be of great disgust for the pledges. Pork brains.
Being a good Southern boy, I took out a hot plate, cracked a few eggs, and told my brothers to return in about 20 minutes. When they returned expecting something akin to a Fear Factor episode for the pledges, I had to inform them that they had to change their plans. I had been joined by a couple of other good ole boys for a fine feast of brains and eggs. I learned then that I could never be trusted with any part of a pig. If there was a squeal, there was a meal.
BBQ Competitions by Region
I started out judging North Carolina Pork Council competitions, and then became certified with two national organizations, the Kansas City Barbecue Society and the Memphis Barbecue Network. Each organization is different in its approach, and each has its own endearing qualities that make it both unique and commendable in the world of barbecue.
The Kansas City Barbecue Society is the largest and most far-reaching of the competition organizations. It has the fairest and most objective judging system and is the only one of the three that recognizes more than pork, having categories for both chicken and beef brisket. All the judging is blind judging, which means that judges are given numbered samples only before marking ballots.
Being a pork guy, I particularly enjoy the opportunity to sample and judge brisket in a KCBS competition. Brisket is comprised of two muscles in the chest between the forelegs of the cow, and because they are working muscles, they don’t offer much marbling (fat), making brisket a naturally tough cut of beef. But in the hands of an experienced chef, brisket can be magically transformed into an amazingly tender and flavorful cut of beef, cooked low and slow for sometimes as long as 20 hours. I am definitely not a regional snob in the presence of a Texas brisket master.
Memphis in May is the World Championship competition held annually during the second week of May. Teams from around the world descend upon the city of Memphis to compete in both blind and on-site competition in three pork categories: whole hog, shoulder and ribs. An outgrowth of the world championship competition is the Memphis Barbecue Network, a sanctioning group that uses the same judging format.
The best part of a Memphis-based competition is the on-site judging, where teams are encouraged to dazzle the judges with stories about why their product is superior to their fellow competitors. And by stories, I mean tall tales. I have been told about how one team gets its pigs from hospitals that are harvesting pig heart valves for open-heart surgery, or how one team cooks over wood that only grows in one particular swamp that can only be accessed by wading in chest-deep water. I have been entertained by bagpipes and serenaded by a barbershop quartet. The showmanship that accompanies an MBN contest is priceless.
If I could only judge one contest per year, it would be the MBN contest in Galax, Virginia. Galax is the bluegrass music capital of the world, and the trophies for the winners of the contest are handmade fiddles and banjos made by local craftsmen.
But as much as I enjoy the KCBS and MBN competitions, my heart is still where I started, with the North Carolina Pork Council. The NCPC is unique because in its competitions each judge (usually three) scores every entered team. The competition is whole hog only and completely on-site judging. I believe whole hog cooking is the best test of a chef’s overall cooking expertise, as the whole hog offers all cuts of meat, with varying thicknesses and fat content.
The world’s largest whole hog competition is held annually in Newport, North Carolina, and can have as many as 100 entries. I judged Newport a couple of years ago when there were 92 entries and sampled every one of them. If you do the math, a one-ounce sample at each site totals nearly six pounds of pork! But hey, I like brains and eggs, so what can I say?
My favorite NCPC story took place in one of my first judging experiences. When our team of judges arrived at one site, the chief cook informed us that he was disqualifying himself from competition. It seems that early in the morning, there had been some trouble with the sauce. Not the red sauce that goes on the pig, but the clear sauce that goes into the cooks (we are talking about North Carolina here). After a few hits from the Mason jar, the pig had started to smell just a little too good, and the cooks had proceeded to eat their competition pig.
Just a few weeks ago at an NCPC event, I had the opportunity to judge a team from the Swamp Loggers reality series. I won’t give away the results, but that episode will air this fall on the Discovery Channel. Needless to say, when you judge barbecue competitions, just about anything can happen.
So after all this barbecue, what is my favorite?
With the help of our friends at Williams-Sonoma, it just might be whatever is grilling in your backyard this summer!
About the author: Brownie Futrell is a retired Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper publisher who now has time to pursue his passion for barbecue. He is an honors graduate of Duke University and currently serves as a member of the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Authority. Appropriately, his own registered barbecue team is named the “Pork Rangers.” He and his wife Susan are the parents of two grown children and reside in Washington, North Carolina. He may be contacted at email@example.com.