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Food Porn: Judgment day

 

"Hey, what's that green stuff next to my ribs?"

"Hey, what's that green stuff next to my ribs?"

My introduction to that great American institution, the cook-off, came early in my food writing career.  It wasn't long after I'd dropped my publishing job for the greener pastures of professional gastronomy that my friend, Kara, invited me to participate in her charity event in Brooklyn.  Since I love to cook, I had some free time, and the opportunity to sneak some alligator meat into a recipe for a bunch of Yankees was too much to bear, I had to agree.  Ultimately, my "Loosiana Gator Dog," a split and grilled quarter-pound Wagyu beef frank topped with melted cheese, tequila-spiked alligator chili, sour cream, chives and crushed Fritos didn't take home the blue ribbon, but at least it found its way to hallowed homepage of a website called "This is Why You're Fat."  Also, it was all for a good cause, it was a gorgeous summer day, and we had a hell of a fun time cooking, drinking beer, and carrying about.  What's not to love?

In the years since, I've competed in one or two other cook-offs and have judged many more.  Apparently, when you write about food for a living in the United States long enough, someone, somewhere, will eventually ask you to judge a cooking competition.  While it's usually a lot of fun, I  always make sure to approach my judging duties with an appropriate amount of fairness and respect.  After all, a lot of people spent a lot of time in the kitchen to be able to compete -- a gumbo cook-off I participated in a while back required contestants to supply a minimum of three gallons of the stuff.  Three gallons!  Not to mention rice.  It's a fair bit of effort just to get to the judges table, and that effort should be respected.

I thought I was serious about my judging duties when it came to chili, hot dogs, vegan gumbo and other comestible competitions,  but those were nothing compared to barbecue.  Recently, I was called on to be a judge at Hogs for the Cause, a wonderful event filled with wonderful people and wonderful smoked pork.  I assumed that taking on the responsibility of judging ninety BBQ teams and their efforts would be similar to the others, a convivial time bubbling with good cheer.

I assumed wrong.

As it turns out, professional competitive barbecue judging -- the kind that happens on the "circuit" all across America -- is extraordinarily serious business.  Each judging table necessitated a pro-judge to be present among the other five (and there were about fifty judges, in total), and all of them, from what I could tell, considered each morsel of food with the kind of gravitas you'd find in a murder-trial juror: silent, grim-faced and simmering with solemnity.

The first thing I learned about pro-BBQ judging is that the numerical system on which it's based is utterly Byzantine.  In each round, be it sauce, beans, ribs, pork butt/shoulder, or "porkpourri," every table was tasked with judging six entrants according to four criteria: "appearance," "flavor," "tenderness" and "overall impression," and each of which would require a whole number score between 6-10.  After those criteria had been met, the six plates in every round also required an overall score, comprised of a decimal number between 7-10.

Still following me?  It gets better.  Apparently, the rules have their own set of rules.  Giving an entry the score of 7 is considered a death knell, a shameful rating that will throw off the entrant's score enough to essentially disqualify them.  I imagined a BBQ chef seeing a seven, then stoically pulling out a short samurai sword and steadying himself to commit seppuku.  "A seven," explained the head judge, "basically means that the dish made you vomit."  She explained these rules via microphone in the judges tent, in what was clearly the professional barbecue version of your standard airline safety lecture.  "Eight means you didn't throw up," she continued. "Nine means it's 'pretty good,' and ten has you going back for seconds."  Then, as the pro at my table explained, the overall decimal numbers needed to be doled out in descending order from 9.9 to 9.4.  After each judge was finished filling out their form for the round, the table's pro would scrutinize each sheet to ensure that the Kafka-esque requirements had been appropriately satisfied.

Serious business

Serious business

But a judging system that borders on fascistic wasn't the only thing I found disconcerting.  It was the silence.  In professional BBQ judges tents, you are not allowed to speak during the judging round, or grunt, sigh, make "yummy sounds," or emote in any way, lest you intentionally or inadvertently influence the judges beside you.  "Don't do that," said one pro, after I'd committed the egregious sin of muttering "mmph," upon digging into a tender pork rib.  "That sort of thing will get you kicked out of the judges tent for good."  Now I imagined the disgraced judge, now a despicable outcast, forced to wander the dusty barbecue hinterlands with a scarlet "T" embroidered on his clothing, so that all will know to forever shun him for being a "talker."

By the sixth and final round, "porkpourri," I'd had about all the judging I could handle.  An entire day of BBQ math class is enough to make any sane person want to ensure that the pork isn't the only thing getting sauced.  So I skipped the judges tent to find my friends and accomplish the most important part of the day: Drinking beer and enjoying -- without fear or judgment -- some good, old-fashioned American barbecue.

The way it should be.

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BONUS FOOD PORN GALLERY!


Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, has written for Gourmet, The New Orleans Advocate, Gambit, ThrillistEdible Brooklyn, Tasting Table, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo essay designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Find him on Twitter @scottgold.