Barbecue judges get taste of competitionsPublished 8:41pm Tuesday, October 23, 2012
North Carolina is famous for its barbecue, among other things. Many of its residents and visitors eat their fair share of barbecue. Books have been written about the two distinct styles of barbecue found in the Old North State.
And in North Carolina, barbecue means pork, usually a whole pig.
But when it comes to experts regarding North Carolina barbecue, it may be those who judge the many barbecue contests in the state who know most about what it takes to turn out excellent barbecue, whether it be the eastern North Carolina-style barbecue that features a light vinegar-based sauce — usually without ketchup added — or the western North Carolina-style barbecue — also known as Lexington-style — that has a vinegar-based “red” sauce — ketchup, vinegar and pepper.
Barbecue judges in North Carolina, many of them certified by the North Carolina Pork Council and/or the North Carolina Barbecue Society, look for several specific factors when judging barbecue. At the top of the list is taste — smokiness of the meat and how that pig cooker’s sauce complements the meat. Other factors include moistness of the meat, overall appearance of the cooked pig and crispness of the skin. Many barbecue contests include a best-skin category,
Barbecue judges look for skin that’s not burned or undercooked and shatters like glass when punched. That “crunch, crunch, crunch” sound heard when a barbecue contest is being judged is the judges sampling, and often resampling, the skin from each pig in the contest.
Sanctioned barbecue contests use score sheets that are filled out by the judges as part of the judging process. Some contests employ only on-site judging, in which judges visit each contestant’s cook site to evaluate the barbecue. Many contests use on-site judging and blind-taste judging, in which judges evaluate the barbecue but do not know who cooked it.
Other on-site judging criteria include overall condition of the site, cleanliness of the cook, cooker and site and if the site had the required number of knives, containers for sauce, beverages, towels and meat thermometers.
Many judges cleanse their palates, usually with water, between sampling barbecue entries.
Greenville resident Charlie Martin has been judging barbecue contests for 18 years, so he’s seen and tasted his share of barbecue. He knows what to look for.
“The first thing we’re looking for when we walk up to the cooker itself and the pig is there, were really looking at the appearance of the pig to make sure it’s still intact, that it has not been cut anywhere. That the pig appears the way it’s supposed to and that it’s not been messed with at all outside of preparing and cooking the pig,” Martin said. “We want to make sure the surroundings are clean. That’s sort of what we are looking for. We look at the color … and make sure none of the bones have been broken and nothing is out of the ordinary with the pig.”
When it comes to taste, “it really does get to be an individual preference.”
“You want to make sure when you dip the meat into the sauce you want to make sure that the meat, the taste itself, is not too hot, not too spicy. Is it something that would be pleasant to the majority of people if they were eating it,” Martin said. “That’s sort of what a judge is looking for — may be a middle of the road, something that is pleasing to the majority of people.”
Martin said when he’s judging he pulls samples of meat from the same area on each pig.
“Typically, when we turn the pig from the back to the front, and that’s how we turn it first, we are strictly looking for the crispness of the skin, if it is crisp the whole way. Then we start jabbing the bones in the shoulders and the hams to see if the meat comes loose, which indicates it’s been cooked properly,” Martin explained.
Martin, a retired State Farm insurance claims manager, joins Dave Crowley and Brownie Futrell as the on-site judges for the N.C. State Barbecue Cookoff Championship that’s part of Smoke on the Water this weekend. Crowley spent 26 years in aviation and intelligence in the Army. Futrell is the former publisher of the Washington Daily News.