PLEASANTON — A lot more goes into winning a barbecue competition than luck, though luck plays a part when it comes to having good weather and a road-worthy barbecue rig. That’s because these men and women head to competitions around the state, as they did on Saturday, 150-strong. We headed south to get a taste of judging a really big competition. No, ours wasn’t the tough part of the work done on Saturday, but it was certainly a front-row seat with a lot of great-tasting ( and some not so great) barbecue.
Most exciting moment: With fewer than 10 seconds left to get his product to the judging table, one cooker raced through the entrance to the Atascosa Show Barn, his entry of barbecued ribs clutched in his hand, listening to a crowd chant a countdown. He made it with milliseconds to spare — and earned a hearty round of applause.
The Turn-N-Burn Cook-Off (actually its full name is 4th annual Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce and Western Premium BBQ Products (W3) Turn-N-Burn Barbeque Cook-off) was third in a series and sanctioned by the International Barbecue Cookers Association. Previous events in this year’s series were in Gruene and Helotes.
Why do so many compete? First, there’s the fun of it all, the thrill of competition. Then, there’s the money. The series grand champion will get a prize of $5,000, with prizes of $1,000 going to the winners of the pork ribs, brisket and chicken categories.
The total payout, however, was to be much higher. At the Pleasanton Turn-n-Burn competition alone was a payout of $35,000, plus the winners of the series finale and a custom barbeque pit trailer by One Man Pits (valued at $9,600) would place the event payout at just over $50,000, according to an article in the Pleasanton Express.
John Griffin and I sat through two preliminary rounds of judging (chicken first, then ribs). There were a few shouted instructions, then numbered boxes were set before each of us at a table for five. It was cut off a piece, taste, pass the box to the next judge, repeat — and there was no fooling around about it. And, no using your fork to take a taste, then use it again on the next entry — the barbecue judges’ brand of double-dipping. We used plenty of plastic forks, paper napkins and sliced dill pickles for palate cleansers — a perfect touch.
Judging an event like this isn’t necessarily a task to be done if you’re hungry. No, the monitor told us — we each didn’t get to pick up a whole rib and dig in. We got to cut off a slice and that was it. And it was enough when you were judging 14-15 entries at your table alone.
Naturally, some barbecue got lower marks than others. Others, we found it tough to pass along a few of those boxes. A certain lush, somewhat mustardy sweet-tangy sauce on the first pork rib entry we tasted was the one we still remembered lovingly at the end of the (preliminary) judging. We wouldn’t find out whether this was the winner — but for us, it was. Sauce on pork ribs, some of it generously slathered, did seem to be far more a popular treatment than dry rub.
By mid-afternoon it was time for the brisket prelims and we considered it. That is, until we saw the long line of prospective judges waiting for what apparently was the main event. Not sure that we’d make it back to the judging table, even if we stood and waited in line an hour, we ducked out.
It was not just a beautiful day for cooking outside, but fine weather for the cowboys, horses and long-suffering calves racing around for the roping event. That morning, as we wandered in the general direction of the show barn to judge, one of those horses got away from its rider and romped past us, kicking up plenty of dirt and enjoying a few moments of freedom.
At the end of the day, it had been a real taste of South Texas for us — even if we didn’t stay for the dancing. (Or the results. This hard-won battle will probably be posted on the Turn-n-Burn website Sunday or Monday. )