CHARLESTON - Barbecue cooks and critics alike will have their work cut out for them at this year's Dogwood-Azalea Festival: April 17 will feature Charleston's first sanctioned barbecue contest.
"This is the first of what we hope will be many more barbecue contests in Charleston," said Lynn Bruce, who is organizing the event with his wife, Dot. "I've been judging for several years and attended a bunch of barbecue contests, wanted to add one to the Dogwood-Azalea Festival weekend."
The "Pigs in the Garden BBQ Contest" is sanctioned by the Kansas City BBQ Society, the largest international organization of barbecue enthusiasts, according to Bruce.
Teams from Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama have already registered to compete.
"Most of what we have is not restaurants, it's cook teams that do this as a hobby or a sport," Bruce said.
The deadline to sign up is March 17, and the entry fee is $200 with a total of $5,000 in prize money to be awarded.
The contest will be held at Reeve's Boomland RV Park in Charleston. Socializing and cooking will begin the Friday evening before the event with judging beginning at noon April 17.
"The predominant difference is the sauces and the preparation of meats," Bruce said. "The cooking is all basically the same - most all competition cooking is done the same: 'Low and slow.' Low heat, and cooked very slowly."
Spice rubs and blends are parts of the equation as well as the wood used to generate the heat, but the sauces are the key factor. "Sauces are usually a closely-guarded recipe," Bruce said.
The contest will include at least four categories for prepared meat: chicken, ribs, pork and brisket. There will be an equal number of cook teams and judges.
"Each table will have six judges, and each of those six judges will normally judge one entry from each of the six teams," Bruce said. "It's a total blind judging system." Judges won't know which teams they are judging and teams don't know who is judging them.
"Each entry is judged on appearance, taste, and tenderness," Bruce said. Entries are judged on a scale of 2-9, "nine being excellent, five being average and two being acceptable. Each entry stands on its own - it is a non-comparative judging system."
Judges do not consult with each other, but score separately. "The scores are fed into a computer and the computer tabulates the results," Bruce said.
Points are awarded to the top five. At the end of the competition, the team or individual with highest number of total points from all of the competition's categories is declared the competition's grand champion and the second highest point scorer is named reserve grand champion.
The contest has been designated by governor's proclamation an official Missouri State Championship so the grand champion will also be awarded a Missouri State Championship title, Bruce said.
For those who think they have a taste for barbecue but believe their talent lies more on the consumption side, judges are needed for the event but must be certified by the Kansas City BBQ Society by attending a training class taught by a certified instructor. The next judging class is scheduled for April 3.
"You learn the official KCBS method of judging," Bruce said. Using the set criteria of appearance, taste and tenderness, "each individual judge chooses what they like the best and they score it based on their individual taste."
The most important thing for a barbecue judge is "loving barbecue, first - loving to eat," Bruce said. "During a contest the average judge will consume an average of two pounds of meat during a two hour period. ... You learn to pace yourself on how much to eat from each entry."
Bruce said he can't sum up in words what makes good barbecue. "You know when you see it and taste it," he said.
His favorite category is also what he believes is the toughest category to compete in: ribs. "It's some of the best meat, the tastiest meat if they're properly prepared," Bruce said.
Those interested in participating either as a cook or a judge should email email@example.com or call Dot Bruce or Lynn Bruce at 573-683-2458.