Saturday, November 1, 2008

All Jacked Up...

Bbq_001_5 "48 hours in barbecue heaven," were the last words I said to my wife as I rolled out of Birmingham headed for Lynchburg, TN on a perfect fall day.  I was on my way to judge the 18th Annual Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue.  I'd judged last year's contest, so I knew what I was getting into.  But the thrill was just the same.

This time around I took my good buddy Bob Dunn, who knows a thing or two about eating good 'cue.  The tiny downtown square was already a mob scene by Friday afternoon, so traffic was being managed by the police.  When Bob cut down the window to ask for the quickest way to the judges parking area, it was obvious to the cop that Bob was a first-timer (I reckon his silver dollar-size eyes gave it away).  With directions out of the way, the Lynchburg local chortled, "You ain't seen nothin' 'til you been to The Jack, son."  Truer words have never been spoken.

This entry's a little late, I know, but I feel like I've only now fully recovered from my trip to Lynchburg, TN this past October to judge the 18th Annual Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue (commonly referred to as "The Jack").  What an experience.  What an honor. 
(Left - Judges table during "Chicken" competition)

Here's a quick primer on The Jack (text courtesy of the Lynchburg/Moore County Chamber of Commerce):
No_useThe Jack Daniel’s Invitational is one of the most prestigious barbecue competitions in the world. Teams from across the United States and around the world compete in the categories of Pork Ribs, Pork Shoulder, Beef Brisket and Chicken. They may also choose to enter the "Jack Daniel’s Sauce" (these sauces must contain a little of our hometown product), and Desserts categories. International teams enjoy being especially creative by entering their "Home Cookin’ from the Homeland," while our U.S. championship teams do the same with their "Cook’s Choice." This year, the international field included teams Austria, Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Puerto Rico, and the United Kingdom.
(Right - A "Mountie" whips up the crowd outside the Canadian team's pavilion.)

To qualify for The Jack, U.S. teams must have already won a competition in which 50 or more teams participated, or they must have won a competition of at least 25 teams that has been designated a "state championship". However, not only must these teams be culinary experts, they must also be lucky. With more than 100 teams qualifying each year ... and because of our limited space in Lynchburg ... we must also limit the number of the teams. So, in early September the names of the qualifying teams go into state lotteries to select the final competitors.

Vendors will be on hand to sell roasted corn, homemade fried fruit pies, funnel cakes, ice cream, and many other mouth-watering delicacies and cloggers will perform on the Lynchburg Town Square. Spectators to the event are encouraged to compete in the Country Dog Contest (canines only!), Bung Pitching, and Butt Bowling while folks from Blue Grass Cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky, will be on hand to demonstrate how they "raise" the barrels that are used to age Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey!

Here's a photo tour of the weekend's event....
Norway_2The Norwegian team captain cooks "family meal" (on a rig made in Houston, TX) late Friday afternoon in preparation for the long night ahead.

Poland_2_5Team Poland gets things rollin' for the Home Cookin' From The Homeland competition.

My buddy, Bob Dunn, sits in on percussion with Aussie John, who turned out to be quite an accomplished didgeridoo player (he toured with Midnight Oil in the 90s, which is pretty cool).  Aussie John was in Lynchburg to support his fellow countrymen from "down under" participating in The Jack.

Fire_gun This Canadian pit master uses his secret weapon to jump-start the coals.  He assured me no license was required to operate this fire-breathing monster.

Contestant3 This contestant carefully walks toward the "turn in table" holding her prized barbecue with two hands.  Each team receives a numbered Styrofoam container for each category of the competition.

Contestant_deliver1 This contestant makes it to the "turn in table" with barbecue intact.

Containers_4_judges2 With all of the entries for the Pork Shoulder competition turned in and accounted for, it's on to the judges.

Pulled_pork1 Approximately 40 judges are invited, then broken into eight tables of five judges.  Each meat sample is placed within the six sections of the "judging plate" (the plates are replaced after each round).  Judges look for a number of things, including flavor, texture, and doneness.  Each judge keeps a separate card to record their scores.  In this image, we're judging Pork Shoulder.

Table_captain1 Each table is assigned a "captain," who, among other things, keeps order and presents each entry.  The judges serve themselves while the captain holds the container.  Notice this captain's rib bone necklace -- pretty sweet, huh?

Ribs1 The Pork Rib category was my favorite.  You really have to pace yourself (or you'll explode!), but it was hard not to pick these bad boys clean.  I think I went through an entire roll of paper towels during this round.

Brisket1_2We ended the "meat" portion of the competition with brisket, which was, perhaps, the most difficult category to judge.  The criteria by which brisket is judged is a little different from the way I normally prepare it at home.  I like mine to be falling apart, but that doesn't fly at The Jack.  I still think brisket is under appreciated in most of the South.  Too bad, because it makes awesome barbecue.

On_lookers Spectators look on as the judges record and double-check their score between categories.

Dessert70_2The competition ended with Desserts.  They were, in most cases, so over the top in presentation that flavor often took a back seat.  That said, most were visually stunning and very creative.  It was a terrific way to end an amazing day.

Me_and_bocephusThough Lynchburg is home to Tennessee's finest whiskey, the town is dry.  That's right, no nothin'.  Normally, after a day of stuffing myself full of incredible barbecue, I'd kick back with an ice cold beer...but not here.  Instead, I took the opportunity to end the day by having my picture made with Bocephus.  Does it get any better than this?  Honestly?  I know it was the residual pit smoke speaking thought me, but for a minute there, I really did believe I was in barbecue heaven.