(Editor's Note - This article appeared in our August 2011 issue of Maryland Life, the 2012 BBQ Bash takes place August 10-11 in downtown Bel Air.)
The women and men approach the table as if it were an altar: silently, reverently, hands cupped, heads bowed.
Their offering? Barbecued chicken, an assortment of legs and thighs tucked into a nest of ruffled kale and cradled in Styrofoam containers.
“That’s a precious commodity right there,” a man in a royal blue T-shirt observes, as a red-shirted woman holds tightly to her box of chicken wrapped in a patchwork quilted carrier.
Competitors exchange well wishes and murmured thanks before rushing back to their tents to prepare for the next round of competition: ribs.
At the Maryland State BBQ Bash in Bel Air, smoked meats are the manna in a carnival-like wilderness of games, face painting, and classic-rock cover bands.
Each year, the BBQ Bash brings together an average of 60 teams, 90 certified judges, and thousands of hungry spectators to share in the primal celebration of barbecue.
This is serious business, too: The winner of this competition, the oldest in Maryland, is not only crowned state champion, but is also automatically entered into the American Royal Barbecue competition in Kansas City, one of the most prestigious competitions on the national barbecue circuit.
The barbecue cooks’ fates rest in the hands of the judges, a group of serious-looking folks who examine and taste the meat under a cool white tent behind the Chamber of Commerce building that provides a respite from the August heat.
They’re retirees and motorcycle repairmen, families, and married couples—like Robert and Angela McKee, of Germantown, who got into barbecue judging as “something to do on a weekend,” says Robert.
Many, like Eric Hohl, of Street, Maryland, barbecued competitively before switching to judging because of the logistics and expense, and “because I wasn’t doing very well with cooking,” he chuckles. All judges are certified by the Kansas City Barbeque Society.
Evaluating barbecue is no easy feat, explains Craig Ward, tree-tall, bespectacled, and the founder and organizer of this event.
Judging is blind, so when judges give their scores on the appearance, taste, and texture of the offerings in the four categories—chicken, ribs, pulled pork, and brisket—that competitors are required to prepare, they don’t know whose product they’re sampling.
Each judging criterion is equally important. A box of the finished “product,” as it’s called, should be arranged attractively on greens and look appealing, says Ward, adding, “You should ask, ‘Do I want to eat that?’”
Judges also look at the amount and color of the sauce, and how brown the meat is, though Ward points out that “this isn’t a sauce contest; it’s a meat contest.”
Under the tent, at the dozen or so long picnic tables strewn with plastic cups of water, cracker crumbs, and wadded-up paper towels, the atmosphere suggests a crab feast, albeit one held in silence. Discussion takes place after judging is over, but not before, and definitely not during.
At a table in a far corner, eight men in straw hats and baseball caps look up from their paper-placemats-cum-score-sheets and nod briefly, giving nothing away, as a helper presents one of several boxes of chicken, opening the container and displaying the contents as if they were diamond earrings on a bed of velvet.
Some pieces of chicken glisten with sauce; others appear dully matte. Each judge selects a piece and takes a small bite or two, jotting down notes on their placemats as they ponder and chew.
While no one table will judge every single product, every product will be judged by more than one table.
“Thighs are a little more forgiving [than other chicken parts],” one judge remarks after the round ends. “Fat is what makes barbecue good.”
At the end of the chicken round, the leftovers are placed on a communal table so judges can sample the range of submissions. Then the routine repeats with ribs, pulled pork, and brisket, with only the presentation varying.
“To get six perfect ribs,” confides judge Shawn Darby, whose day jobs include building motorcycles and taste-testing for McCormick, “you may have to cook as many as 20 racks.”
Other barbecue secrets are revealed over the course of an afternoon. Brisket is the trickiest product to prepare. Ribs are the judges’ favorite, followed closely by pulled pork. Pacing in sampling is a good goal rarely reached.
By 4 p.m., scores are compiled and winners announced. But, really, with so much lip-smacking, smoky goodness on hand, everyone—judges, competitors, and spectators alike—is a winner.
The 11th annual Maryland State BBQ Bash takes place August 10-11, 2012 in downtown Bel Air. For more info, visit www.mdbbq.com.