Class hasn't even started yet, and I'm already lost.
I'm outside the American Royal exhibition hall in my midsize SUV, a vehicle that makes suburban women tip their curls to me in recognition. My car is out of place amid the recreational vehicles, dusty pickup trucks and smokers on trailers.
I see two old men with cigarettes and Styrofoam cups of coffee in their hands.
"Mornin'," I say. I put the car in park and kill the engine. "Is this where you park?"
"Well, you can park here if you're competing," one of the men tells me.
I'm not on one of the record 545 teams competing in the 33rd annual American Royal World Series of Barbecue Open. I'm here to learn how to judge the contest — a skill that, at the American Royal, requires a four-hour certification class.
"Are you two competing?" I ask.
"We're gonna try."
I think about the old men's collective experience, and how it's about to be at the mercy of my ignorance, as I head inside the exhibition hall. I pass a wall adorned with pictures of past prize-winning steers and hogs. The animals gaze at me with blank eyes. This entire place was built on livestock — showing, riding, smoking and eating it.
I find the right conference room and join my 60 classmates. Each of us has paid $85 to learn from instructor Mike Lake. I'm here as an embedded reporter first and a barbecue eater a close second. (The Pitch covered the cost.)
"Some of what you eat will be good," he tells us as the day gets started. "Some will be very good. And some will be so-so. It all depends on how much time the team spent with Jack Daniel's this weekend."
He wears a khaki, collared shirt embroidered with the Kansas City Barbeque Society logo. Two decades competing on the barbecue circuit have seasoned his voice Southern. He occasionally rubs the wax-curled ends of his white mustache while searching for the right word to say.
Clicking through a PowerPoint presentation, Lake refers often to the red books on our tables, copies of the official judging guide. The KCBS takes our task very seriously, in part because there's serious money at stake. The society sponsors more than 400 contests annually nationwide and has around 18,000 certified judges active this year.
The class seems to have lured meat devotees and rubberneckers alike. Joe and Lanee Duckert, an Iowa couple, tell me that they've started competing and they want to get inside the judges' heads. They're sitting next to John Allee, who lives north of the river and smokes meat on Sundays. He watched an episode of the TLC series BBQ Pitmasters and told his wife that he was ready to try judging.
"My idea of barbecue is that if you bite into it, it runs down your chin and onto your shirt," Allee says when I ask him to define good barbecue. It's as good an answer as I'll hear this weekend.
Lake teaches us that much of what we think we know about good barbecue is wrong. Ribs that fall off the bone aren't tender — they're overcooked. Pork that is soft and buttery may taste good, but it's overcooked. Pink might be the right color for chicken after all.
"You have to judge what's in the box," Lake says, "not what you think should be in the box."
The class runs like clockwork, a reminder that competition barbecue is as much about timing as it is about seasoning. A team that fails to have its meat ready for the contest's 10-minute turn-in window is better off staying home. Mock judging is set for noon. At 11:55, Lake tells the day's volunteers to fetch the first judging boxes: white Styrofoam takeout containers full of meat. Oklahoma Joe's has prepared samples of the four categories — chicken, ribs, pork and brisket — that we're going to judge on Sunday.
I'm out of the gate like an idiot, eating everything on my plate, which in KCBS competitions is a white place mat with six squares for six entries. Choice or habit, it won't matter later, but I'll remember this moment come Sunday night.
The judging slip is like a miniature-golf scorecard, with a box for each team number (the judging is blind, conducted by number rather than name) and blank lines for the three judging criteria: appearance, taste (the most heavily weighted category) and texture. Each entry is scored from 2 (inedible) to 9 (excellent). The 1 is reserved for rule infractions, and a 10 doesn't exist — here, anyway, there is no perfect barbecue.
Lake has spent the morning identifying violations for us with PowerPoint slides, and now we're trying to spot them. For example, garnish and sauce are optional in KCBS competitions, but a cook who opts for it (and Lake advises us that it's hard to win without garnish) can use only approved greens such as iceberg lettuce, green leafy lettuce and cilantro. So when a box arrives with red-tipped leaf lettuce, it gets an automatic 1 for appearance. Infractions that result in an across-the-board 1 include sculpted meat (Lake has seen pork fashioned in the shape of the Texas Star), the wrong meat, a marked box, and foreign objects (foil, toothpicks).
Lake quizzes his students, asking some how they've justified their scores. He's looking for outliers. A woman who awarded a 5 in taste to both chicken entrants attracts his withering attention.
"Do you like chicken, ma'am?" Lake asks.
"I just thought it was dry," she answers, her voice meek.
Judging, I learn, is about conviction.
Judges aren't allowed to fraternize with teams on Sunday. Before then, though, the rule doesn't apply. So Friday night, I hand $20 to a parking-lot attendant (who then directs me to park in a different lot, across Liberty Street), and my wife and I set about filling our plates at the tents of several acquaintances. A lesson that most learn the hard way at their first Royal: Teams aren't obligated to let you try their barbecue; instead, it's an offer that must be freely given, like the moral in some meatcentric fairy tale.
After we eat, we walk through the expo space, where barbecue rubs and sauces are sold next to children's clothing and adult tricycles ("mobility without the stigma" — the manufacturer's tagline, not mine). She thumbs through a pile of sequined toddler shirts while I look at stainless-steel smokers with the hungry eyes I once reserved for flat-screen TVs.
I leave the party close to 11 p.m., but it doesn't leave me. Salt and chili powder form a ring under several of my fingernails. Barbecue sauce is tacky on the sleeve of my jacket. Even my pee seems to have the faint hint of smoke.
Somehow, though, I'm still hungry for barbecue the next day. And I'm not alone.
"Yo, you going to eat some barbecue?" asks the leader of four friends as we board a yellow school bus idling in front of Union Station. I felt that question to be rhetorical. It's 9 p.m. Saturday night, and the shuttle to the American Royal is empty, save for our two groups.
"Dude, I am going to eat the shit out of this place," the kid tells his friends. "But how am I going to pick? It could be him or him." He gestures at the teams working under their tents, their lots marked by hay bales and Port-a-Potties.
I'm pretty sure he thinks my brother and I are on a date, so I don't interject to tell him that he won't be able to sample the competition barbecue unless a team offers him a taste. The only barbecue for sale is from food vendors, and it's generally not on a par with what's being cooked in the surrounding lots.
It's calmer tonight. The 154 teams in the invitational, which spent the previous night cooking, are exhausted from preparation for Sunday's open contest. And the other 400 teams are recuperating from Friday night's parties. Judges who show up Sunday morning with beer on their breath are barred from registering. I made a solemn vow to forgo alcohol and meat in the 24 hours before the contest. So, naturally, I'm drinking the world's coldest aluminum bottle of Budweiser as the temperature hovers around 40 degrees just five minutes after we step inside. My meat-abstinence pledge is broken shortly thereafter.
My brother and I head to the Burnt Finger BBQ tent, where one banner touts Bacon Explosion — the latticed bacon-and-sausage creation that has made team co-founder Jason Day famous — and the other has the team's mascot: a cartoon pig made of fingerprint-like whirls. Day and his wife, Megan (the team's unofficial public-relations coordinator), are with two other team members, all of them huddled in camping chairs around a patio heat lamp. KCBS founding member Paul Kirk holds court. I let on that I'll be judging in the morning.
"Judges," Kirk says, trailing off and shaking his head. He tells the story of the time that one of the worst briskets he ever cooked won the Jack Daniel's Invitational.
"The only thing worse than a Southern judge is a Yankee judge," Kirk jokes. I tell him I was born in Connecticut.
After a brief stop at the Ro Sham Bo tent, where the team is bundled up and watching Saturday Night Live with a pair of propane-powered heat lamps at their feet, we push on as the clock moves closer to midnight. College-football broadcasts go unwatched, and tent flaps are held closed by string as teams try to sneak in a bit of sleep before the overnight fire watch.
"What's that?" asks my brother, pointing to a circular steel smoker the size and shape of a yoga ball.
That is the Atom Bomb, and it's just one of the custom steel smokers built by Big Bro's Q. The handles are forged from horseshoes off a Texas ranch. Two generations of cooks from Texas and Abilene, Kansas, are pouring us a beer before we've even asked.
The team is still laughing about the local TV reporter who asked to get shots of their trophies in the frame. Those trophies are for women's golf and weightlifting, and their Goodwill price tags — 99 cents apiece — remain affixed. It's a good-natured dig at the championship banners and trophies that dot other teams' lots. And this team does like its good-natured digs. I'm on my second plate of ribs when I get a cold splash of reality to tone down the barbecue rub made with jalapeños.
"I didn't know a little guy could eat so much," says one of our hosts.
"Neither did I," I tell him.
I'm headed to the American Royal for the fourth straight day Sunday when I glance over at the sign in front of the First Baptist Church Westside on Avenida Cesar E Chavez. A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways, it reads.
Smoke rises gray and thick over the West Bottoms as I join the judges' registration line, which wraps around the red-white-and-blue draping that closes off the judges' area from the public. I meet Mike McQueen, 56, who ran an Iowa diesel-truck repair shop but is now eating his way through retirement. He and Mark Farr are swapping stories: Farr talks about the time he tasted nothing but lighter fluid in his box, and McQueen trumps him with the time a box of ribs contained nothing but hot dogs.
A little after 10 a.m., the line begins to move. It'll take the better part of 30 minutes for the 531 judges to be seated. Rows of folding tables are covered in red-and-white, gingham-patterned plastic tablecloths and lined with rolls of paper towels, pencils, sleeves of saltines and bottles of palate-cleansing water. Farr, McQueen and I are sharing a table with Gary, who judged the invitational yesterday; my fellow Thursday-class participant Bob; and Anissa, certified in March and judging for the eighth time this year.
Black cowboy hats and metallic badges with judges' names dot the room. Our table captain, Tom (who is responsible for collecting the judges' slips, doling out the food, and ensuring that protocol is followed), passes out pins for participation. It feels, not uncomfortably, like the Boy Scouts.
"Welcome to the 33rd annual World Series of Barbecue," Lake says. My throat feels dry, and my head is vaguely pounding. Whether it's from nerves or the previous few days' barbecue intake doesn't particularly matter.
McQueen and Farr begin ripping off paper towels and folding them in half. I follow their lead, not exactly sure what we'll be doing with them. Farr hands me a wet towel (he has brought three), like a server at a Japanese restaurant. It will prove invaluable for cleaning my sauce-stained hands.
"Good morning, judges," Lake says. "Today is your lucky day — you get sausages."
A collective whoop greets this news. I grimace as I do the math. There are six entries in each category, and now there's a fifth category. Even with only a bite or two of each item, I stand to eat at least 30 ounces of meat today.
After KCBS founding member Ardie Davis leads the judges in an oath (legend says he originally penned it on a spare piece of butcher paper in the dining room of Arthur Bryant's on Brooklyn Avenue), Tom returns with a red tray loaded with six white takeout containers. He and the other table captains begin announcing the numbers written on the boxes, and for a moment, the room sounds like a bingo hall.
No talking is allowed among the judges once the boxes arrive. Tom opens the clamshell packaging and lets each judge score the chicken on appearance before the containers are passed around. When my plate is full, I begin to assess each breast and thigh for taste and texture.
Good entries, against the odds, still make you want to eat more. Bad entries make you question everything you've eaten so far. The side of my right palm is soon sticky with sauce, which I inadvertently wipe on my judge's slip, plate and jeans. After I turn in my first judging slip, Tom hands it back to me. I panic, but he only wants me to make a 6 a little clearer. Penmanship wins championships, people.
Lake had told my class that every new judge's favorite category is ribs, and the ones I get are glazed beautifully. Many are shiny crimson, with a pleasing heft when I lift them out of the box. But the third entry is too sweet, the fourth falls apart in my hands, and the fifth has an off-putting metallic finish. Suddenly, I'm finding it hard not to compare them with ribs I've eaten outside the contest. I remember Lake's mantra — it's about what's in the box — but my impulse is to downgrade some things for failing to live up to expectation.
Meat burps arrive with the pork boxes. Pulled pork, chopped pork — it all disappears into me, the pig at my table. My plate is shiny and red with sauce and fat drippings, like my arteries.
The brisket is next, and my right foot has fallen asleep. Thick slices are stacked inside gentle beds of greens, with six chunks of burnt ends sitting at the bottom like a footboard. I hear a huge cheer from outside the draping, followed by the brief honk of what sounds like an air horn. Teams are congratulating a fellow competitor who has managed to get his entry in just under the wire.
The sausage arrives, but it doesn't seem like a bonus. The boxes have a sad weight as I lift and pass them. The first is a pile of dark-maroon whole sausages, and they're difficult to break through with my teeth. I'm glad the scores don't count toward awarding the grand champion title.
Close to 2 pounds and a little more than two hours after I took my first bite, I carry my blue chair to the hard-packed earth floor in Hale Arena so it can be added to the audience seating when the winners are announced. My fellow judges carry Igloo coolers and Ziploc bags filled with leftovers. To the critics go the spoils. The competitors arrive in another hour, each hoping to be called to the makeshift dais. But I've seen enough carnage for one day.
I walk outside, where roadies are breaking down stages and audio equipment. The circus is leaving. Dogs loll in the shadow of RVs. Cheeseburgers have replaced the more expensive meats on smokers. Charcoal ash smolders in Deffenbaugh trash bins. I just need to keep everything down, and walking seems to help. I wander farther into the parking lot, where I parked on Thursday, so long ago. A video crew, one of three shooting the American Royal for television, is getting close-up shots of the judges for BBQ Pitmasters.
"That's Myron Mixon," a 20-something tells his dad as they lean up against the fence and watch the show being staged. "He's a judge."
I barely resist the urge to sidle up alongside the two and tell the kid that he could be a judge, too.