Barbecue. Barbeque. Bar-B-Q. Bar-b-que. Bar-be-que. BBQ.
No matter how you spell it, barbecue is good eating.
And it can be served in more ways than it is spelled — chopped, pulled, sliced on the bone as in ribs. With sauce, without sauce. Cooked with a dry rub or a wet rub.
Ask any backyard cook and they most likely will tell you they have the “secret” recipe for good barbecue.
And there are contests throughout the country that invite backyard cooks to put their recipes to the test.
But since barbecue is subjected to taste, just who is to say which one is the best?
That’s where the Kansas City Barbeque Society comes in.
The nonprofit organization is dedicated to promoting and enjoying barbecue. It is said to be the world’s largest organization of barbecue and grilling enthusiasts with more than 13,000 members worldwide.
So, when an invitation came to me to be a part of this prestigious society, I jumped at the chance.
More 50 other Shoals residents joined me for a KCBS judges’ school at Deshler School in Tuscumbia.
The class was being held in advance of the second annual Calvary Mission B-B-Q cook-off scheduled for June 14-15. Sponsored by Calvary Baptist Church in Tuscumbia, the event raises money for mission activities.
Randy and Carol Bigler, certified judges with KCBS, were our instructors.
And Smoke of the Shoals, with Ken Aday as pit boss, volunteered their time to cook a variety of barbecue for the event.
“If you’re here just to eat all the barbecue you want,” Carol Bigler said to the group, “just go to the cook site at a competition and ask for samples. They’ll give it to you.
“KCBS takes judging seriously,” she said.
Integrity was a word Bigler used often when describing KCBS. And the class started with having to sign a policy on anti-discrimination and anti-harassment, followed by a code of conduct.
If you think we jumped right in to the “meat” of the matter with tasting barbecue, you would be wrong.
First was a lesson on cooking methods.
“No gas is used in KCBS,” Bigler said. “You are only allowed to use propane gas to light the fire.”
It was followed by a lesson on the meat itself.
Meat categories in KCBS-sanctioned events include chicken, pork ribs, shoulder and beef brisket.
In order to be considered for the Grand Champion prize in KCBS contests, the cooking team must include all four meats to be judged.
Each table is required to have six judges, so six servings are required for each container of barbecue, no matter if it’s chicken legs, shredded pork or pork ribs.
Pork ribs can be tricky when it comes to serving. Each serving must have a bone to be considered as serving, and each rib serving must be cut completely.
Judges are not allowed to cut through the meat when they are taking a serving from the container.
So, when the judge No. 4 sitting next to me picked up a serving that contained two rib, it was counted as one serving. I picked up the only remaining rib when the container was passed to me, leaving Judge No. 6 with nothing.
Which goes without saying the cook wouldn’t get a good score from Judge No. 6.
Since this was not a real contest, however, Judge No. 4 did share with Judge No. 6. But that wouldn’t have been allowed in a real contest, our instructor informed us.
Judges are told to keep a “poker” face while judging. The instructor explained you could influence other judges with facial gestures or sounds of approval or disgust.
The containers are all alike marked with nothing but a number. It is a double-blind contest so as to not give away the identity of the cooking team.
Judges are instructed to score first on appearance as the containers are held before each judge so they can get a good look.
Then each judge takes a serving.
Taste, Bigler said is an individual choice, but she encouraged judges to consider if it has flavor or if it is lacking in flavor.
“There are five tastes,” she explained. “Salty, sour, sweet, bitter and savory. Consider the balance.”
The final score is for tenderness. And if you consider tenderness as falling-off-the-bone ribs, think again.
“Tenderness,” she said, “is not how soft the meat is. Is it moist, dry, tender, tough, mushy or just right. If the meat falls off the bone, it probably is overcooked.”
Bigler said each criteria in judging is unique.
“It may look good, but not have a good taste,” she said.
She encouraged judges to score for what is presented.
Scoring ranges from 9 for excellent to 2 for inedible.
“Nine does not say perfect,” Bigler said, “And if you give a 2, mean it.”
But if you do give a sample a score of 2, Bigler advised the judges to be able to answer why if a cook asks.
“If you put a score down, don’t be ashamed of it, but give a specific reason for the score,” she said. “A cook deserves more than ‘It didn’t taste good,’ or ‘I just didn’t like it.’ ”
If it was dry, tell them, she encouraged.
Comment cards also are provided for the judges, but are not required. Bigler did say, however, cooks do appreciate good comments.
When it comes to presentation and appearance, we learned there are “legal” and “illegal” garnishes.
Cooks may use chopped, sliced, shredded or whole leaves of fresh green lettuce, parsley or cilantro. Illegal garnishes include kale, endive, red-tipped lettuce or lettuce core or other vegetation.
The infraction penalty for an illegal garnish? One point on appearance.
Sauces may be served on the meat as a cook sees fit, including chunky sauces. Chunks, however, are to be no larger than a fine dice. Side containers of sauce or sauce pooled on the side of the meat is not allowed. Sauce violations receive a score of 1 on appearance.
Finally, it was time to put the skills we had just learned to the test.
Each judge is given crackers and a bottle of water to cleanse the pallet between samples. Water is the only beverage allowed. Carbonated beverages, as well as alcohol, are strictly forbidden.
Our only utensil was the serving fork. We were encouraged to eat with our fingers only. Thank goodness for paper towels.
Our Table Captain passed the first entry in front of us.
Little did I realize they would slip in an “illegal” garnish, and I was supposed to give it a “1” for appearance.
Curly-leaf lettuce is a no-no, and I failed to catch it.
Appearance aside, the first sample ranked an 8 with me in taste and tenderness.
These judges are serious about their barbecue, so I was on my toes when a later entry included red-tipped lettuce as a garnish.
I gave it a “1” in appearance, but it got a “9” for taste and “8” for tenderness.
Our Table Captain told us he always starts with a score of “7” when he judges because the cooks put a lot of effort forth just to be there. He then adds or substracts from that number, usually adding.
Table Captains at KCBS barbecue contests are responsible for maintaining control of the judging table, keeping the flow of the entries timely and helping to prevent any violations of rules. They also serve as guides for the judges throughout the contest.
In fact, a separate class is needed for someone to become a Table Captain.
Judges are not paid for their services at KCBS events, but that doesn’t stop them from volunteering to judge.
“You meet so many nice people in this ‘sport,’ ” Bigler said. “It’s like family.”
After spending several hours in instruction and actually tasting barbecue, my co-judges and I took the oath and became certified Kansas City Barbeque Society judges.
So, bring on the barbecue.
And there just so happens to be a cook-off on the horizon. Calvary Baptist Church in Tuscumbia is sponsoring its second annual Calvary B-B-Q Cook-off in June.
A fundraiser to benefit missions, it will be June 14-15 in Spring Park in Tuscumbia.
Cooking teams wishing to participate can visit calvarybaptisttuscumbia.com/missionq for details and forms; or call or email Alan Nix, 256-710-4129 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Wesley Burden, 256-762-3592 or email@example.com. Sponsors also are needed for the event.
Teri Thornton can be reached at 256-740-5742 or teri. thornton@TimesDaily.com.