In the world of competitive barbecue, there are two camps that largely define the field – the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) and Memphis Barbecue Association, also known as Memphis in May (MiM). Each has its own traditional flavors, its own set of rules, and its own national championship. Although many competitors participate in competitions that are sanctioned by each organization interchangeably, there has never been a joint competition.
This year’s Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle took the first step toward making a unified competition a reality. For the first time ever, KCBS and MiM held competitions at the same location on the same weekend, with each crowning its own Grand Champion. Though each contest was judged according to its own organization’s format, this sets the stage for future cooperative events. On Saturday the 21st and Sunday the 22nd, Pennsylvania Avenue became the hot spot for local barbecue enthusiasts, and I was there to weigh in as a judge.
For those of us who are only certified to judge KCBS-sanctioned events, this year’s Safeway Barbecue Battle represented the first time that we could actually participate as judges in the event – previously, it was exclusively an MiM event and, as such, only Memphis-certified judges were needed. But the addition of the KCBS contest – which was judged on Saturday, the 21st – gave three dozen of us a chance to sit down on Saturday afternoon and taste our way through the competitors’ ribs, pulled pork, chicken and brisket.
Barbecue competitions’ dirty little secret after the jump.
Contest organizers don’t like to share this, for obvious reasons, but anyone who shows up at a contest like the Safeway Barbecue Battle thinking they’re going to get to sample the competitors’ entries are in for a rude awakening. In most areas, health codes and other restrictions prevent competitors from giving out their product to the general contest-going public. The only folks able to give out food are the vendors, which means that the closest thing you’re going to get to competition barbecue is buying a $7 pulled pork sandwich from Famous Dave’s.
So now you know why I got certified – I actually get to taste the competition ‘cue.
On Saturday afternoon, I joined my fellow KCBS judges to see what the competitors had to offer. We would work our way through four categories over the course of roughly two hours. First we tasted chicken. Contestants can submit white or dark meat (dark meat is cheaper and retains moisture better, so you’re more likely to see thighs than breasts in these competitions) with the skin on or off. From there, we move on to pork ribs, which should be meaty and tender. The goal is not to submit ribs with the meat ‘falling off the bone,’ but rather to have the meat loosely cling to the bone, so it can be readily pulled away with the teeth. Most KCBS teams tend to baste their ribs in a traditional Kansas City-style barbecue sauce, which is usually on the richer and sweeter side. Pork shoulder follows the ribs – it can be served sliced, pulled or chopped, and it should retain a good texture without being overly dry. Finally, we taste brisket, which is a true test of low-and-slow cooking as the connective tissue within the meat requires lengthy cooking times to break down and tenderize this rather tough cut of beef. There’s a very fine line between well-cooked brisket and a crumbling pile of dried-out meat.
Knowing that the Barbecue Battle has historically been a Memphis in May contest, we were expecting to see ribs and pork that were far superior to the chicken and brisket. The reason? Memphis in May competitions judge in only three categories: ribs, pork shoulder, and whole hog. So we assumed that teams who had historically competed in the Safeway contest would be more practiced in the art of pork preparation than in either brisket or chicken.
Although I can’t speak for every judge in the tent, I can tell you that those who judged the same entries as I did found exactly the opposite situation to be true – some of the chicken we tasted was truly impressive, while we struggled with the pork shoulder and ribs that were put before us. Even more interesting was the number of teams that chose to participate in each category (you need to submit in all four to have a chance at the grand championship, but teams can participate in as many or as few categories as they choose). Of the 38 teams that participated in at least one category, 35 each submitted entries in the chicken and brisket categories. Only 30 teams offered up ribs for judging, and only 26 turned in pork shoulder. Inside the judges’ tent, we were more than a little surprised. Why pay two entry fees – to compete in the KCBS and the MiM contests – and then not submit pork or ribs on Saturday when you’re already preparing them for the Sunday competition?
Whatever the reasoning, it effectively eliminated them from consideration for Grand Champion and paved the way for a truly momentous outcome: Jack’s Old South BBQ, a true giant on the competition circuit, emerged as Grand Champion of BOTH the KCBS contest on Saturday AND the Memphis in May contest on Sunday. Do these dual wins mean that maybe the two circuits aren’t all that different, after all? Only time will tell, but they certainly provide a great starting point for future cooperative endeavors between the two.