Every time I mentioned to someone at the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg, Tennessee, that I'd been offered a seat at the judges' table, I received the same response: "This is the best barbecue you'll ever have."
But after my first experience as a Kansas City Barbecue Society judge, I can confidently say, this simply wasn't true. Many of the samples I tasted in my four hours of judging were undeniably good but still couldn't compare to the barbecue served at counters and restaurants throughout America. In taste and in texture, not one plate of pork shoulder or brisket that hit my table could stand up to what I've eaten in South Carolina and central Texas. Only the chicken and ribs seemed to live up to their high expectations—and even then, I couldn't use the words "best ever."
I wasn't surprised.
What competition could honestly be expected to top the addiction-inspiring sandwich at Payne's or the earth-moving whole hog from Scott's? There are reasons why judges are explicitly told not to compare entries to their favorite barbecue in the world; one tantalizing memory could wreck the curve.
"The Jack"—a contest with 22 years of history, grand champion cooks from 10 different time zones, and the backing of major corporate sponsors—exists in a world distanced enough from destination dining to be its own culinary tradition. And while many competitive teams run their own barbecue shops and catering businesses, most of the revered masters of American barbecue will never get to enter the ring of a KCBS event.
More than anything, my trip to Lynchburg confirmed that competition 'cue is itself a distinct genre of American barbecue, one more closely linked to communal culture of barbecue than to its regional foodways. Hosted by the Jack Daniel Distillery and moderated by the KCBS, "The Jack" is at once a humble assembly of cooks and a grand exercise in branding this culture; the gravity of competition gives this two-day event its teeth, but the contest's greater impact is its hands-on evangelism of holy smoke.
Nowhere was this point clearer than in conversation with international teams. Gregorz Kazubski, captain of the Polish BBQ Kings, summed up the peculiar nature of competition barbecue in discussing judges' preferences and the practical restrictions they place on his creativity.
"The judges here are quite conservative about the flavors, and I think we miss a lot," answered Kazubski when asked how he intended to compete with the domestic champions. The Warsaw cook hinted at a lack of openness when it comes to judging the dimension of taste (which is done blindly and silently):
"Why garlic instead of shallots? Why shallots instead rosemary? Let's say we're using cumin, or in our way of cooking, we are using honey instead of brown sugar, which gives us a little bit different flavor. They should teach us how to cook here, but they should teach judges what Belgium, German, English, Polish are using...I think that with this kind of information, we should share."
Highlighting the global appeal of barbecue, Kazubski is a competition booster working with Europe's World BBQ Association to spread KCBS standards worldwide. While the team would like judges expand their palates, they still see KCBS competitions as the best forum for making that happen.
Canadian cook Susan Murray, of third-place rib winners The Black Pig BBQ, pointed to KCBS competitions as the primary source of barbecue in Ontario. As part of the Canada Southern BBQ Association, she is also a part of the effort to make KCBS competition standards the international spearhead for a greater barbecue enthusiasm.
"We're working on getting all our judges KCBS-sanctioned," she commented, "so we're gonna have consistency across the board. We're hoping that we'll get bigger, and more people will buy into it, and we'll kind of have a standard across the province. And eventually we'll want to expand across Canada."
Linnae Oxley, captain of second-place sauce winners Sugar's Barbecue, agreed that without the standards and the spirit that these events work so hard to cultivate, she, along with many others, wouldn't have realized her passion for the craft. "You need to have a starting place," she stressed. Hailing from Portland, she also acknowledged that the rapid spread of barbecue competitions has essentially homogenized regional differences under the KCBS umbrella.
"That being said," Oxley reminded, "people gravitate towards Kansas City, because Kansas City in and of itself, mind you, is a homogenization of different influences." An optimist, she was happy to characterize competition 'cue as a template, from which new regional traditions will someday flourish.
This writer's reservations about that outcome aside, there's no denying that competitions have become barbecue's bully pulpit. From the opening day procession of teams through Distillery grounds to the opening evening banquet at Barbecue Hill to the closing day ceremony of awards and congratulations, the community of barbecue played point throughout this wonderful weekend.
The Jack, then, is less a culinary pinnacle than a passionate vanguard of barbecue's democratic power. And in this way, perhaps more intimately linked to the history of food than its trappings let on.
Next week: What does a KCBS judge look for at the World Championship contest, and what does this mean for the idea of giving any meal a score?
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.