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Frisco Barbecue Challenge: A night at BBQ judging school

Summit Daily/Mark Fox

FRISCO – The first bite of chicken entry no. 102 piqued my palate with a heady burst of flavor. I gave it a 9, the highest rank.

It was difficult not to cower a bit as classmates with more experience than me explained to our instructor that they marked it 4 (poor) because the skin was too tough and the flavor too smoky.

“We’re not Stepford judges,” Bunny Tuttle said, emphasizing that every judge has a different approach to barbecue.

Tuttle, with the Kansas City Barbeque Society, led 22 or so students through the four-hour course Thursday night at the Frisco Recreation Building.

“Moisture, texture and flavor,” she said, are telltale signs that “you’ve got a good piece of meat.”

I really chomped into chicken no. 102. The skin – known to harbor flavor – all came off with one bite.

I’m a skin guy. Perhaps amid the ecstasy of consuming that fine crispy thigh, my journalist’s skepticism was overpowered. The tenderness and pleasant after-taste sealed the deal for this Texas-bred carnivore.

I was not the only one to treat that particular serving of meat to high marks. It was the first course on the menu – followed by ribs, pork and brisket.

The students’ marks through the first two tastings were all over the board, but by brisket, our scores became more consistent.

Andy Williams of Western England was at my table of six judges in training. He came to Colorado for a storm-chasing trip and was lured to the 17th Annual Colorado BBQ Challenge by the Town of Frisco’s website.

He said his home country doesn’t smoke much meat. Rather, small charcoal grills are used for outdoor cooking sessions of 20 minutes or less.

“It was amazing how different they all were,” Williams said of the entries under each category.

There were three entries to each category; all were prepared by expert chefs Rich Tuttle and Dell Anderson. Hardly any sauce was used, and the subtleties of preparation were easily distinguished.

“I like the ribs best,” said Daryl Berg of Arvada, another recently sworn judge. “I’m ready for a second batch.”

He said he hadn’t expected there to be such rigorous rules to cooking and judging. For example, the Kansas City Barbeque Society allows the boxed entries to include garnishes of lettuce, cilantro, parsley – but not red-tipped lettuce, cabbage or just about anything else. Just one leaf of a prohibited substance disqualifies the entire entry. Meat can be covered in sauce, but pooling of sauce is an automatic disqualifier.

There must be at least six pieces. If the rib I pull out of the box is stuck to another, I’m not allowed to shake them apart. The judge who doesn’t get one marks it a 1 (disqualified).

Each entry is marked on appearance, taste and tenderness. Tuttle said judges must not compare meats but, rather, judge each on its own merit. All judging is blind – we don’t know the identities of any of the cooks behind the meat.

Tuttle said it’s essential judges be honest with their marks, and for good reason: About 67 teams from across the country are competing this weekend for $15,000 in cash prizes, including $3,000 for the grand champion.

In one sitting, a judge can consume as much as 2 pounds of meat. If necessary, the judge will chew on food and spit it out to avoid getting sick.

It’s no cakewalk, and at each judges-in-training table Thursday was a roll of antacid tablets. These, too, are essential.

Thursday’s class ended with a swearing-in of judges pledging both subjectivity and objectivity in the marking of barbecue. We aim to give every piece of meat a fair shake while using our senses to assign scores.

I would recommend judging school to anyone looking to get more intimately involved with the unique and satisfying art of American barbecue. The only requirements are that you are 16 or older and serious. To learn more, go to the Kansas City Barbeque Society’s website at http://www.kcbs.com.

SDN reporter Robert Allen can be contacted at (970) 668-4628 or rallen@summitdaily.com.