Page 5 of 5
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.