Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Behind the Scenes at the Memphis in May BBQ Contest

My boyfriend is an official BBQ contest judge. He's gone through the training and certification. He knows his 'Cue...and has the paperwork to prove it. So, how did I end up sitting one table away from him in the judges tent at the World Championship BBQ Contest at Memphis in May? By accident. Truth.

On Friday, for the "Anything But" competition day (which included everything but the three main categories of Shoulder, Whole Hog, and Ribs), we arrived and got him checked in. We both had identical for the judge, one for their companion. I looked as official as he did. 

We had some time to kill before judging started, so we walked around and checked out some of the booths. I was planning on just hanging out in the judges tent and watching the process. However, when we returned, we were both quickly ushered to tables and seated (separate from each other). All of a sudden, I'm sitting with three "official" judges with a placemat in front of me.

Um. I introduced myself to my tablemates and confessed, "I don't think I'm supposed to be here." They didn't seem to mind, so we set about getting to know each other. When an official came around checking cards to make sure we were at the right table, I explained what happened and started gathering my things. She said, "It's fine. You can stay."

Um. I turned around to Pat and gave him a questioning look. He said, "Go with it. Have fun. You know food. Just rank based on what you like."

Okay, then! He had given me a pretty thorough explanation, stemming from my curiosity, the day before on the drive up to Memphis, so I had a reasonable grasp of the process. Plus, the other three judges were incredibly nice and helpful. 

Our table would be judging Exotics and Vinegar Sauces. The trouble with Exotics, my group explained, is that the dishes come without a description, so it's sometimes difficult to figure out what you're actually eating. I would soon find this out for myself. 

You give each dish a score of 7-10...but 7 is absolutely "I can't take a second bite" inedible, so it's not frequently used. You judge Appearance, Consistency, Flavor, and Overall Impression. One dish must receive a 10 for Overall Impression as your "winner." Here's what the scorecard looks like:

So, here's how it works. Six Styrofoam containers are placed on the table (lids closed). This is called a "blind box." At the appropriate time, they are opened and everyone stands up to view and judge first on Appearance. Then, a piece from each box is taken and placed on the mat next to its number. Dig in! 

You're not allowed to talk to each other about the dishes until the scorecards have been taken up...and then you can compare notes/thoughts. Here's what our table looked like after judging the first category:

As predicted, we could only identify one of these dishes with any certainty (bologna). One of the dishes was a huge piece of meat (stuffed with sausage) on a large bone. We "think" this was probably emu or ostrich. 

We did, however, all agree on our table's winning dish. It was a bacon-wrapped bison (we think) jalapeno popper, and it was outstanding.

Next up were the Vinegar sauces...I didn't particularly care for any of them, so scoring this category (and declaring a winner) was difficult for me. 

I can honestly say this was one cool experience. I was already excited about getting to see behind the scenes...but "being" behind the scenes was an event I'll never forget. I have to give all of the contestants props for the hard work that went into cooking their food and preparing their boxes. 

Don't let the official apron fool you...the real judge is the one wearing the official pin.

(VERY IMPORTANT) FOOTNOTE: On Saturday, when the "official" World Championship entries of Shoulder, Ribs and Whole Hog were being judged, I was a safe distance away, and all of the judges doing THAT work had been through the training and certification process. Contestants should rest assured that their BBQ was being evaluated by "professional BBQ palates!"

Monday, May 19, 2014

Eating & Drinking in Memphis

We spent the past weekend in Memphis for the Memphis in May BBQ contest, for which my boyfriend was a judge. While we ate plenty at the festival, we also made time to check out a few other local establishments.

On our way into town on Thursday, we stopped for lunch at Memphis BBQ Co. This restaurant is owned by award-winning Melissa Cookston, who won the Whole Hog division on Saturday. 

We started with an order of the Smokin' Wings, jumbo whole wings that were smoked and then fried and tossed in BBQ sauce. I can't even describe how incredible these were. I'm a big fan of buffalo-style wings, but these blew me away.

We then shared the Pitmasters Sampler, which had a half slab of baby back ribs, sliced brisket, and pulled pork...with sides of baked beans, turnip greens, and cornbread. I was surprised that my favorite thing on the plate was the brisket, of which I don't consider myself a fan...but I guess I haven't had it cooked right until now!

After judging was over on Friday, we started walking from the riverside over to South Main, a cute area of town described as "original shops, restaurants, art, events, architecture, history, characters and innovation." 

We stopped in at S.O.B. - South of Beale for a beverage and a snack. 

On recommendation, we had a pint of Honey Wheat Reserve from Ghost River, a local brewery. It is described as a "play on a traditional American style wheat ale, enhanced with locally sourced honey and sweet orange peel." It was so light and refreshing!

As a bourbon fan, Pat couldn't resist ordering the chicken and waffle sliders with Maker's Mark glaze as "syrup." I had never had chicken and waffles before, and I loved the combination. Plus, I loved that the syrup wasn't overly sweet.

We are always quick to ask locals where to get the best food, and everyone we talked to (from the guy at the liquor store to a festival policeman) said we had to go to Central BBQ for ribs. Their tagline is even "Go Where the Locals Go." Done!

We shared a half slab of ribs, half wet/half dry. My dad does his ribs with a dry rub, and I'm always more of a fan of these than sauced ribs. The locals didn't steer us wrong...perfection!

Pat completed his judging on Saturday and was desperate for a burger. He was BBQ'ed out! He had done a little research, and it led us to Earnestine & Hazel's

This hole-in-the-wall is known for two things: its Soul Burger and haunted jukebox. It's "driven by ghosts." You don't operate just will go from silent to playing "tunes that eerily sync to the moment." 

Back to the food...there is one thing on the menu. One thing. The Soul Burger. 

"The Soul Burger began as an experiment. In its infancy, it was plastered with every topping under the sun – lettuce, gourmet cheese, and other items we’re not allowed to mention. But, after trying to keep up with the countless combinations, we soon remembered the old adage - “Keep it simple, stupid” – and never looked back. A bun, patty, onions, cheese, pickle, and “Soul Sauce” are all that's needed to make our delicious burger. And if you don’t think that’s enough, pay $30 bucks for a fancy burger somewhere else. Then come back to Earnestine and Hazel’s, repent for your sins, and munch on the Soul Burger's delicious simplicity."

Y'all. It was ridiculous. 

We sat at the bar and watched the cook create this masterpiece. He cleaned the flat top grill after each order with pickle juice. He was a character!

That wraps up our eating and drinking adventures in Memphis. Stay tuned for my festival roundup post!