For one week each October, the annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue turns the dry, single-stoplight town of Lynchburg, Tenn., into a BBQ metropolis, a mecca for the apostles of slow smoke.
The Jack, as it’s known on the circuit, delivers a $10,000 purse and nearly unsurpassed bragging rights. So the teams that come to compete for it show up a week early, at least.
They park their camper vans, trucks and trailers side by side in the Hollow, alongside the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Wakefield Park. Then they unload, set up camp and get to work. Which for them means lighting their fires, trimming and injecting their briskets and pork butts, scraping fat from beneath the skin of their chicken thighs, and getting it all up to competition specs. Then they do practice run after a practice run.
Just like Olympic athletes given to conducting their training sessions at the same altitude and atmospheric pressure as their eventual competition, the best BBQ teams insist on testing out how their fires burn and their smoke flows under local conditions. And they do time trials, too—not just for cooking time, but also for how long it takes to walk a BBQ sample from their kitchen across the field to the judges’ tent. Then, they add the 20 minutes it will probably sit there before the judges taste it, and factor all that in. Because a winning sample cannot be perfect when it leaves their kitchen; it has to be just shy of it, designed to attain its tender apotheosis just in time to be judged, after those 30-odd minutes in its regulation-sized clamshell Styrofoam box.
A box that must contain no red lettuce for garnish—only green. And in which sauce may not be pooled at one side (it may only be brushed onto the meat). Said meat can never be sculpted or—horrors!—formed into an identifiable rosette (an offence resulting in disqualification). I can tell you all that, and more, about the rules because the day before the event, all newbie judges, like me, are required to attend an almost inconceivably boring lecture by a representative of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which oversees the Jack and innumerable other contests.
“What I’m going to ask you to do is to forget everything you think you know about barbecue,” our man from KCBS began, in a predictable Southern drawl. “Whether you like your meat falling off the bone or whatever—you’re gonna forget it. All those folks in the Hollow invested in them rigs, and the $1,000 they each spent on meat for the weekend, well, they do not want to be judged by folks walking in off the street who just think they know what barbecue is about. You are not going to judge them by what you like. You are going judge by what the standards are.”
His point was fair enough; the four-hour length of his lecture, not so much. But all too many pay US$50 for the privilege. The KCBS now has more than 25,000 members—including me. In the burgeoning field of BBQ competition, there are now some 450 KCBS-sanctioned contests every year. And only cardholding KCBS judges may judge them.
So, looking about the room at the hundred-odd people being indoctrinated that October day, I counted a handful of journalists and a large number of competitors, looking for a competitive edge. And—judging by the size of many of the other attendees, I could not help but suspect that the word was out that when you’re judging, the food you evaluate is free.
When it was all over, we stood, saluted the KCBS flag, and in emotional unison recited our pledge, swearing “I do solemnly swear/ To objectively and subjectively/Evaluate each barbecue meat/That is presented to my eyes/My nose/My hands/And my palate/I accept my duty to be/An official KCBS Certified Judge/So that truth/Justice/Excellence in barbecue/And the American way of life / May be strengthened and preserved forever!”
And the next day, at last, it was time for the 27th annual Jack Daniel’s invitational. I parked at the edge of Wakefield Park and in a gentle rain made my way through the field of teams. Caveman Cuisine was there, from Carthage, Mo., and The Perfect Butt, from Wallingford, Conn. Cajun Blaze was back, from Gonzales, La., and Can U Smell My Pits, from Hudson, N.H. Smoke Me Silly had turned up from Madison, Ala., along with Hoosier Favourite, from Versailles, Ind., and of course R2-BQ, from Wantagh, N.Y. Canada sent Swinefellows, Japan dispatched BBQ Shogun, and the United Kingdom, Miss Piggy’s. Others had come from as far afield as South Africa, Sweden and Estonia.
The tapas bars in Logroño are more modest than in San Sebastián. A place might serve just one thing, and it’s usually simple. Such as Bar Soriano, famous for its three mushrooms grilled with garlic butter and skewered with a shrimp on top. Every night, the streets fill up by 9 p.m. with people eating, drinking and standing around barrels that act as tables in the streets (the long-aging requirements of Rioja wines mean there are a lot of spare barrels around).
Several times I notice small groups of people exchanging money before walking into a bar. This is a local custom. One person in a group of friends handles the money, which makes paying at each tapas bar quick and easy. The group continues along, eating and drinking till the money runs out, and then they call it a night.
The judges’ pavilion was vast, with a stage at one end and row after row of judging tables, each set with a half-dozen chairs. I took a seat beside a BBQ legend from Illinois named Pat Burke. And promptly our sullen table started wordlessly launching numbered sample boxes our way. They came in waves. Seven samples at a time of the competition meats—pork ribs, pulled pork, chicken and brisket. And then, just for fun, some freestyle barbecue, sauces and desserts. The hardest part was not the eating, but rather not contravening KCBS rule #1: no finger licking.
And in the end, the instructor from KCBS was right. I forgot what I thought I knew about barbecue, judged by the standards—and found them to be quite astonishingly high. Sure, it took two days to digest and recover, but I would do it again in a flash. Especially now that I don’t have to take that course again.
Original, daring, smart, well-considered, unpretentious, gorgeous to look at, delicious, and joyful—the tasting menu my wife and I experienced here last year was very likely the best meal I ate all year. The Irish chef who oversaw it—Trevor Moran—had then already announced that he was soon to return to work for old boss Rene Redzepi on the new Noma. I recommend following him there, but also to check out what new chef Ryan Poli is up to. I want to; the Catbird did far too many things brilliantly well for it to end with one man’s departure.
It is often said that James Beard-award-winning Sean Brock makes the shrimp and grits anywhere. I haven’t tried them at his original Husk in Charleston, but the ones they are tossing up at his Nashville outpost are sublime. You’ll also want to try the hot chicken. The 19th-century townhouse setting is delightful by day or night.