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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.