Let the meat do the talking: SC barbecue competition season heats up
Competitition cook Cheyenne Ledyard of Ledyard Bar B Que Company brings his team’s box of ribs to the receiving table at the Bands, Brews & BBQ competition. Ledyard BarBQue came in 18th place in ribs judging and 12th for butts.
Ribs are laid out on a judge’s map at the Bands, Brews & BBQ competition. The Palmetto Smokehouse team manned by Michael Harmon and Gary Freeman received the top marks in rib judging.
Judges record their scores for ribs at the Bands, Brews & BBQ competition, judging meats based on aroma, appearance, tenderness and texture, taste, and overall experience.
By Sarah Ellis
It feels like a South Carolina summer, sounds like a county fair, smells like smoking wood and tastes, well, not half bad, to say the least. A barbecue competition is a sensational treat — literally.
For competitive barbecue cooks, a contest weekend is a test of taste, technique, timing and experience. For competition judges, it’s a time when they must set aside their own flavor preferences and let objectivity guide their senses.
The South Carolina Barbeque Association will host nearly three dozen competitions across the state this year. Whether they’re cooking, judging or just eating their way through them, thousands of South Carolinians will revel in the competitive products of the state’s rich barbecue culture.
You’ll find Michael Harmon and Gary Freeman at most of those competitions, where they’ll haul their Palmetto Smokehouse cooking trailer and hope to augment their collection of contest trophies. They’ll put in around 15 hours of work and up to $450 in expenses each time they compete.
“We love it,” Harmon said. “Instead of playing golf every weekend or having a mountain house or having a big boat, this is our hobby. This is what we do.”
It’s the challenge of competition and pride in winning that drive Harmon and Freeman to devote more than a dozen weekends a year to competing. Last year, the pair cooked in 16 or 17 events, Harmon said — “we kind of lost track” — and won about half of them. This year, they expect to compete in about 20 events.
“You’ve got to love it. If your heart’s not in it, you’re wasting your time,” Freeman said.
'I'm not going to screw it up'
Garland Hudgins doesn’t want to talk to you.
It’s minutes before 10 a.m. AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” — the live version — is blaring, and Hudgins and his wife, Rebecca, are perfecting their product. The screaming guitar riffs serve a dual purpose: to keep away unwanted onlookers and to keep Hudgins focused and motivated at this most intense moment.
The pair have been smoking their meat all night alongside their competitors, and it’s all come down to these last few minutes.
“I am so focused on what I’m doing I might be accidentally rude to you,” he said. “I’m not going to screw it up in the last five minutes, not after I’ve been working for 24 hours.”
In the time it takes to finish the song, Hudgins’ fingers, clothed in cotton gardening gloves, assemble what he hopes is the perfect box of barbecue.
As the last loud notes fade out, Hudgins steps away from the white plastic foam box, expertly arranged with his best cuts of pork, fresh off their all-night stint on the smoker. Rebecca steps in now, armed with cotton swabs and tweezers to polish off the minute details of the presentation.
The lid is closed. A hot towel is placed under the box. Hudgins whisks it off to the receiving table outside the judging area. It’s 10 a.m.
It’s all in the judges’ hands now.
'You can tell good barbecue'
Joe Traynham can talk barbecue. An SCBA master judge, he jokes that he comes from a profession that knows food well — he’s a Baptist preacher.
Traynham knows that a good box of barbecue should be full enough to feed eight judges and should have a pleasant smell. The meat should tug just slightly when he pulls it apart with his fingers. When he chews it and presses it to the roof of his mouth, the meat shouldn’t feel mushy. He doesn’t want a lingering aftertaste.
What Traynham wants most from a good box of barbecue is to be able to taste the meat itself.
“We don’t want a sauce to overwhelm the meat. We’d rather have the meat come out,” Traynham said. “If you come from a background of vinegar and pepper or mustard-based, you’ve really got to open yourself up to tasting beyond that, and you have to work at that.”
While flavor biases run fairly deep among most South Carolinians, a preference for any one of the state’s four distinctive barbecue sauces — vinegar and pepper, mustard, light tomato and heavy tomato — is tangential at best when it comes to judging the quality of the cooked meat.
“For the most part, you can tell good barbecue from bad barbecue, regardless of the sauce,” said Dylan Knight, an SCBA novice judge who sat at his first judging table in February. “The sauce is kind of secondary to someone doing a good job cooking the meat, smoking it properly.”
'A one-bite contest'
The judges don’t do much talking.
Not about barbecue, at least. With the exception of some idle chatter about families or sports or traffic tickets, every judge is focused on the meat.
Their mouths are consumed by the task of biting into beautifully brown ribs, carefully chewing mouthfuls of chopped pork butts, licking leftover grease and sauce from their fingers. For the most part, the judges leave all the talking to the meat.
“The only way I can talk to those judges on the day of competition is through that box,” said Hudgins, who, in addition to cooking competitively, is an SCBA master judge. “What am I going to say? How am I going to say it?”
SCBA judges evaluate competition meats based on five weighted criteria: aroma; appearance; tenderness and texture; taste; and overall experience. The categories of taste and tenderness and texture carry the most weight on a scorecard that adds up to a possible total of 17 points. Seven or eight judges taste each cooking team’s sample, and their scores are averaged.
Anyone can become a judge — all it takes is a $35 annual SCBA membership and a one-time $45 seminar to become a novice judge. Novice judges spend three competitions sitting at a table with other novices where they’re walked through the judging process by a veteran judge. At their fourth competition, judges graduate to the big-time judging table and receive an apron marking their status as a certified judge.
A cook’s key to pleasing the judges is to “be the least offensive as possible” with a meat’s flavor profile, Hudgins said. That means using any distinctive flavor components, like sweetness, heat or any particular seasoning, in moderation. If judges are able to pick out any one component in a meat’s flavor, Hudgins said, it’s likely to be something they don’t like.
“Barbecue’s simple. We try not to complex it,” said Harmon of the Palmetto Smokehouse team. “You’ve got to wow the judges. It’s a one-bite contest.”