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.