"I hope you didn't eat breakfast, because you're going to eat a lot of barbecue."
Those are bold words to kick off a day learning about barbecue techniques and delicious, succulent meat.
You may have grown up with barbecue (as I did), but judging an event like Bakersfield's Biggest Baddest BBQ takes more than chomping chops. That's because the event is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, making it subject to specific rules.
Of those rules, two are paramount. First, this is a meat contest. It's not about the sauce, not about the garnish. Second, don't eat everything in the box.
What's in the box? That's how team entries are presented to judges: a simple styrofoam box containing six or more samples of one of four meats -- pork ribs, brisket, pork shoulder or chicken -- with the simplest, if any, garnish of green lettuce, parsley or cilantro. Any fancy greens or pooled sauce forces judges to score the entry down.
Leading the class of returning and brand-new judges was Gene Goycochea, a past KCBS master judge and CBBQA (California BBQ Association) board member. He explained that control is key, as each judge will taste up to 24 samples on contest day, and overdoing it is an occupational hazard.
"Fat is where the flavor is at," Goycochea shared as one of the bits of barbecue wisdom gleaned from years of competing and judging. "Barbecue creates a better-for-you piece of meat. Rendering fat, passes it through the meat, flavoring it."
Since I grew up mostly on hamburgers, beef ribs and chicken breasts, Goycochea and the KCBS manual proved invaluable. Brisket, for example, needs to adhere to the "pull test." Meat should break apart with little effort, although, if overcooked, it will easily fall apart. Some teams will hide a less than stellar brisket by cutting it large (overcooked) or thin (undercooked). A smoke ring can be falsified with curing salt, so that's no indication of skill.
For ribs, a bite test in the center determines quality. Teeth marks should come clean from the bone. More meat pulling away means it's overdone, while meat sticking to the bone shows it needed to cook longer.
Goycochea decried the "dumbing down of pork," warning that teams who turn in pulled rather than sliced meat (although offering both is OK) may be thought to have overcooked the shoulder. Look for a piece from the "money muscle" and test it on the top of your mouth: a slight chewiness is best; overdone meat dissolves and undercooked proves too chewy.
No matter what comes across the table, Goycochea said judges should try it.
"We ask that you sample it all. You don't have to, but we ask that you do."
That may hold for non-judging attendees as well, although don't eat everything -- unless you're sharing.