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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.