Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Southern Stuff: Lessons from a BBQ Judge

By Brownie Futrell

Brownie Futrell (right) with Dave Grohl at a barbecue event. Photo provided.

When the subject is barbecue, there is actually very little that we Americans can agree upon.

We agree, at least in the South, that the word is a noun, and we profess our love for all that is barbecue.  But at that point, let the raging debate begin.

The Big BBQ Debate

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 with its German heritage mustard-based barbecue sauces, and northern Alabama is renowned for its mayonnaise-based white sauce, made famous by Big Bob Gibson. In Memphis alone, neighbors debate whether to serve ribs dry, with just spicy rub, or dripping with a local wet mop.

For purists, true barbecue is cooked only over charcoal or hardwoods, yet some 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 candy-like 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 lower Midwest, including the great state of Texas and its wonderful allegiance to its beef heritage, and encompassing the holy trinity of barbecue cities–St. Louis, Memphis and Kansas City.

And it is a proud history indeed. With a few notable and painful exceptions, barbecue restaurants throughout the South provided the first common table where people of varying backgrounds and socio-economic classes broke bread together as equals.

The Making of a BBQ judge

For the last two decades, 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 may have sealed my fate and reputation as a hopeless devotee to my chosen avocation.

As a member of a fraternity at Duke University, I once sent a couple of younger brothers to the grocery store with the express instructions 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 heard of, something that would be of great disgust for the pledges. Pork brains.

Being a good Southern boy, knowing exactly what to do, 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 an old Fear Factor episode for pledges, I had to inform them that they had to change their plans. With the smell wafting through the fraternity house, 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 not be trusted with any part of a pig. From the rooter to the tooter, if there was a squeal, there was a meal.

BBQ Competitions by Region

I started out judging North Carolina Pork Council competitions, and after several years became certified with two national organizations, the Kansas City Barbecue Society and the Memphis Barbecue Network. I became certified with the Memphis organization soon after my son enrolled at Ole Miss, and came to really appreciate the barbecue traditions in and around Oxford. I found out quickly that former Ole Miss football coach Ed Orgeron was right on the mark when he uttered the line in “The Blind Side” that Oxford’s best barbecue can be found in gas stations.

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 competitions. Sponsoring contests around the world, it has the fairest and most objective judging system and recognizes more than pork, having categories for both chicken and beef brisket. All the judging is blind, which means the judges are given numbered samples only before marking ballots.

Despite 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, now independent of the Memphis Barbecue Network, is the world championship competition held annually the second week of May at Tom Lee Park. Teams from around the work descent upon Memphis to compete in both blind and on-site judging in three pork categories: whole hog, shoulder and ribs. Both Memphis in May and the Memphis Barbecue network use the same judging format.

The best part of any Memphis-based competition is the on-site judging, in which teams are encouraged to dazzle the judges with stories about why their product is superior to 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 values 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 a Memphis-style contest is second to none.

If I could only judge one contest a year, it would be the MBN contest in Galax, Virginia. Galax is the bluegrass 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 still belongs where I started, with the North Carolina Pork Council. The NCPC is unique because in its competitions each judge (usually three or four) score 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 cook’s overall barbecue cooking expertise, as the whole hog offers all cuts of meat, with varying thicknesses and fat content.

The world’s largest single-category whole hog competition is held annually in Newport, North Carolina, and can have as many as 100 entries. I have judged Newport on a number of occasions and have been responsible for sampling and judging as many as 92 entries. If you do the math, a one-ounce sample at each site translates into nearly six pounds of pork. But hey, I like brains and eggs and someone has to make the sacrifice, right?

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 the 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 white high-octane 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.

Judging barbecue has provided me a number of very eclectic experiences. I have written about barbecue for Williams-Sonoma, appeared on the reality show “Swamp Loggers” on the Discovery network, and judged Memphis in May alongside Rock and Rock Hall of Famer Dave Grohl. Needless to say, when you sign on to judge barbecue events just about anything can happen.

So with all this barbecue, the inevitable question. What is my favorite?

With the help of my friends at Ole Miss, it just might be something that will be served up in The Grove this coming fall.

I await your invitation.

About the author: Brownie Futrell is a retired Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper publisher from Washington, NC., and a member of the School of Journalism and New Media Board of Visitors. He may be reached at abf@embarqmail.com