Grillin' on the Bay: BBQ Contest
Last Saturday I had the privilege of being a guest judge at the Grillin' on the Bay barbecue contest in Sheepshead Bay to benefit the St. Mark's Sports Association and sanctioned by the New England Barbecue Society (who knew?).
As a lover of barbecue, and really who isn't, I was excited at this opportunity, even missing out on a friend's wedding ceremony. (I did make the reception though.) But, as a first time judge, I was also a little nervous. The co-judges at my table were seasoned, serious and certified. Did you know they had courses in barbecue contest judging? While my compatriots in judging, one of whom is a year-round Santa, were testing the spring of the meat off the bone, I didn't know where to begin. Little bites or big bites? Or measured tastes of each morsel so as not to give away which one I liked best? When do I eat the Saltine? Finally, I just ate. After all, as we all concurred, it comes down to individual taste.
Barbecue contest judging is serious business and the rules are strict. For instance, no pooling is allowed, which means the sauce isn't allowed to puddle at the bottom of the container. Also, the only garnish allowed is green leaf lettuce, Italian parsley, flat-leaf parsley or cilantro. Luckily, we didn't have to disqualify anyone. That would be heartbreaking. Contestants spend countless hours perfecting their recipes and the anonymity of the contestants is strictly enforced. I understand why, but it's also a bit of a bummer since you don't get to match up the winner with the winning meat you may have tasted.
Our jovial table captain made sure our table was well stocked with bottles of water and Saltines for cleansing the palate between tastes. We judged three criteria: appearance, taste and tenderness on a scale of 2-9 with a starting point of 6 and the best being 9. We were strictly instructed to judge each entry on its own merits.
The first round of judging was the chicken dish. The table captain passed around a styrofoam container with six pieces, one for each judge. The judges selected their piece and put it on one of the slots of their judging plate. (See right). You may not begin tasting until all judges have their piece of meat. With a plate full of chicken pieces, "this is gunna be fun," I thought, as a huge smile grew across my face. The reality is that chicken is a bit boring and some of contestants unfortunately chose run of the mill chicken breast which is just so hard to keep moist, let alone interesting.
Next up was the fish. My favorite was a perfectly seared piece of tuna wrapped in a light barbecue sauce with a hint of wasabi. I liked the fact they successfully paired tuna with something unexpected like barbecue sauce while bringing you back to tradition with the hint of wasabi.
Barbecue is made for pork and in my opinion the pork round had the most consistently good entries and was the most fun to judge and eat. We all had differing opinions however with some more seasoned judges somewhat disappointed. I loved the rib in slot number three (upper right). It was meaty, moist and the judiciously applied barbecue sauce had just the right hint of clove. Although I showed up at the event starving, I have no idea how I made it this far without exploding. It becomes quite an art figuring out how much to eat and when I really liked what I tasted, I was prone to devour the whole thing.
There was also a category for chef's choice, which is the most creative. We sampled everything from lobster tail and short ribs to a piece of filet mignon wrapped by a scallion with asparagus, shrimp and mushroom. An incredible physical feat. Overall, I felt that the contestants just tried too hard. Let the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves and try not to wow me with fancy preparations and platings. This is barbecue after all. Another entry was grilled pizza with shrimp on top. Anyhow, there was one standout and that was a big piece of beef rubbed in peppery spices and grilled perfectly rare. I just loved the way the spices combined with the meat's juice in the mouth. Needless to say, that piece of meat disappeared effortlessly from my plate.
After consuming nearly 2 pounds of meat within 2 hours, this is the part where I get to say, "It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it."