It sounded like a good idea at the time: Spend three days up at Snowbird during the first annual “Grill on the Hill,” become a certified card-carrying barbecue judge (by the Kansas City Barbecue Society) and pig out on lots of chicken, pork and brisket. But, egad! I’ve discovered there is a not-so-thin line between eating barbecue and judging barbecue. It’s a lot like foreplay that never results in actual sex.
There is a barbecue universe that I wasn’t really aware of. It’s populated largely with barbecue nerds who are as passionate—no, religious—about smoked meat and poultry as Trekkies are about Spock. These are True Believers, and you can recognize them by their uniformly super-size bellies. Now, I’m no skinny Minnie, but I’d have to eat an awful lot of pulled pork to even think about weighing in with this crew.
Here are some things I learned about barbecue while becoming a certified barbecue judge: If it’s “falling off the bone,” it’s crap. Falling off the bone equals overcooked. According to the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), one ought to be able to bite a barbecued pork rib in the middle and come away with a clean chunk of meat, with the rest of the rib meat left intact on the bone.
I also learned that competition barbecue is not about sauce. In fact, judges are not even to consider sauce, unless it is “pooled or puddled in the container,” which means a disqualification. There are other seemingly arbitrary infractions that will also result in disqualification from a KCBS barbecue competition, like using any garnish other than whole leaves of green leaf lettuce, parsley or cilantro. Use kale, endive or (God forbid) red-tipped lettuce, and your day is done, my friend. Nor are rosettes of meat slices allowed.
Rookie judges were strongly counseled by Arlie Bragg, a KCBS head honcho, not to eat everything placed in front of us during the competition. Each would sample barbecued chicken, pork ribs, pulled/chopped pork and beef brisket from six different competitors. That’s 24 helpings of barbecue or, I think Arlie said, something like eight and a half pounds of the stuff. For some reason, this advice didn’t really stick with me. During the first round of judging (chicken), I thought, “C’mon, six little ol’ chicken thighs isn’t really all that much!” Well, they are when you have to taste the skin, which is consistently and predictably tough as chewing on rubber bands.
Still, the barbecue I judged at Grill on the Hill was pretty much all either good or really good. But by the end of a two-hour judging session, I felt like hickory smoke was oozing from my pores. I was desperately in need of a salad or sushi.
For dinner on Friday night, there were lines 30-people long at the barbecue concessions. I chose instead to visit the Aerie Sushi Bar. I hadn’t been there in a while, and there have been changes afoot. For starters, a talented sushi specialist named Otto Blum is at the helm preparing the standard rolls, nigiri and sashimi, but also off-the-menu specialties like hamachi kama (where the collar of the hamachi is marinated in spicy miso and broiled) or his tender, tasty three-way Wagyu (top-flight Wagyu beef prepared sashimi-style, as nigiri, and also broiled in a spicy black-bean-and-garlic sauce). Blum even cracked open a live diver scallop for fresher-than-fresh sashimi, and prepared aji (Spanish mackerel) sashimi served on the skeleton of the fish. It tastes a heck of a lot better than it sounds, and was the perfect antidote to barbecued meat.
By the end of judging barbecue on Saturday afternoon, I’d begun to have serious thoughts about becoming a vegan. And yet, I found myself at Snowbird’s Lodge Bistro a few hours later going mano a mano with a big bowl of steamed mussels in saffron mustard sauce with grilled bruschetta. One thing was certain: I wasn’t going anywhere near the cherry cola-infused barbecue lamb riblettes. But my stepson did and proclaimed it the best lamb he’d ever had.
Of course, time heals all wounds. And within 24 hours of nearly OD-ing on barbecue, I found myself actually craving meat again. Well, the carne asada steak platter at Snowbird’s El Chanate quickly remedied that hunger. It’s two six-ounce steaks marinated, char-broiled and served with sautéed onions, beans, rice and a yummy garlic-yogurt sauce. Since I can never pass up carnitas, I decided to skip dessert in favor of El Chanate’s pork carnitas: oh-so-tender braised pork chunks served with fresh guacamole and that same delicious garlic-yogurt sauce.
Well, sometimes you’ve just gotta get back up on the horse that threw you. And so it was, at the Atrium’s Sunday Brunch, that I found myself standing in front of an outdoor grill, plate in hand, asking for just a slice or two—OK, maybe three—of tender grilled flank steak with chimichurri sauce. And I know I’ll rue the day, but I’m sort of thinking it might be fun to be a judge at this summer’s Rock ’N Ribs Festival at the Gallivan Center on Aug. 23. By that time, I should have most of the smoke rinsed out of my hair.
El Chanate: 933-2025
The Aerie: 933-2160
The Atrium: 933-2140
The Lodge Bistro: 933-2145