Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Journey To Judge

I'm wandering around downtown Bel Air, Maryland - a sleepy little town northeast of Baltimore that's hosting the Maryland BBQ Bash, an annual event celebrating smoke, hogs and the proliferation of wheat through beer. Fifty-one teams have gathered to compete for the title and the right to head to the nationals sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS).

It's a beautiful sunny day here and life is good because of it. The crowds have gathered around the few bbq vendors selling ribs, pork and brisket, and the lines are insanely long. So long that I doubt I'll actually eat any barbecue while I'm here. According to one of the signs, the 2007 National Champion is here selling their wares. It would be a "must eat" if the lines weren't so long and moving so slowly.

I've come to the BBQ Bash to sample some barbecue, get a flavor for the community and to grab some pictures of the bbq rigs the "big boys" are using. There's been rustling in the old Ono Grill camp about firing up our smokers once again and hitting the road for Memphis In May, so before that happens, I figured I'd come down and check things out.

Of course, I'm here to snap photos, but my suddenly-not-so-trusty Canon G9's battery decides to die after two pictures. I'm flabbergasted. And pissed. No problem, I think - I've got the handy-dandy iPhone. What's this? I left it in the car???? Fucking hell. That's it. I'm done. No pictures of rigs. Now I have to rely on memory. This does not bode well for Team Ono Grill in May...

Like fanatics in any passionate pursuit, these barbecue guys are true geeks. As I wander amongst the competitors tents, I notice that these guys (and gals) are just as odd, quirky, geeky and focused as the weird barista world I compete in. But while the barista set prefers shaggy hair, tight jeans and a penchant for not showering, the bbq pit guys favor shorts, t-shirts, overnight partying and the unremovable smell of smoke on their bodies. As disconcerting as it may be for some, I somehow feel right at home amongst these guys paying insane amounts of attention to the depth of the smoke ring in their beef brisket.

The competition works like this: on the first day, Friday, the teams arrive and set up their pit sites. The judges inspect their meats to make sure they're in compliance with the rules and the cooking starts. Teams will slow cook their meats all night long while partying all night long. By Saturday morning, the meats are cooked and the teams are, well, baked. It's common knowledge that some teams party so hard on Friday night that they never make it to the judging on Saturday.

Judgment comes Saturday morning as the teams can compete in three categories: chicken, pork and brisket. Starting at 11:30am, the judging goes in waves. Teams have from 11:25 to 11:35am to submit their chicken. Then, at from 12:25 to 12:35pm, they have to submit their pork entry (pulled or ribs or anyway they choose), and finally, from 1:25 to 1:35pm they must submit their brisket entry. Miss those time windows and you're disqualified from that category.

Without knowing any of this, I had the serendipitous pleasure of happening upon the judges tent at 1:20pm, struck up a conversation with one of the supervising judges and got to see the brisket pageant play out. Within ten minutes, representatives from each of the fifty-one teams came forward, styrofoam box in hand, to submit their entry.

Watching them arrive was sheer delight. No matter the size. No matter the build. No matter the experience level. Each representative (or two or three) came holding their box with both hands. I wondered if this was detail was stated in the rules or were they just so paranoid about something happening to their entry that they made sure they were holding onto it for dear life itself. One team setup next to the judges table came around the long way instead of cutting through their backyard because the long way was the path of least resistance. God love these people for their commitment.

Walking along the aisles it was interesting to see the differences between the seasoned and the newbie. Those with lesser experience and commitment had very simple setups while veterans towed large arrays of grills and smokers on their custom-built trailers. Some of these teams had spent upwards of $80,000 on their rigs. Were they serious competitors or just passionate people committed to their lifestyle? I wasn't sure, but they too held their styro boxes with both hands.

Since it was already past one thirty and I hadn't eaten all day, I was starting to feel pretty hungry. I just wasn't going to wait an hour in one of those barbecue lines. Maybe something from the Italian sausage vendor might do, but how lame would it be to go to a bbq event and not eat barbecue? Quite lame indeed.

That's when my luck took a turn for the better. Jerry, the judge supervisor with whom I had been chatting with, invited me to go to the table at the side of the tent and try the competitors' brisket entries.

During the judging, each team submits a numbered styrofoam box. Upon receiving it, the officials replace the original number with a new one to preserve anonymity. These newly numbered boxes are sent in sets of six to the judges table. Six judges sit per table and judge six entries each. The judges base their scores on taste, texture and a slew of other criteria. After the judges have taken their samples, the remainder of the box and its' contents are sent to the side table.

The side table is where you'll find the action. The boxes are laid out randomly and any of the judges (including myself) can taste any or all of the entries. I decided that it was in the interest of my palate and professional development as a food professional that I should sample all of the entries that I could and proceeded to tear off pieces of brisket all the way down the line.

It was a fascinating adventure and wildly educational. So many entries and so many interpretations of what is, essentially, the same dish: beef brisket. As I listened to the other judges hovering around, discussing their findings, I learned a few more things: that brisket always needs to be cut across the grain. Fat needs to be trimmed. Teams that do not follow these essentials will find their entry mocked at the side table. Some of the judges went so far as to fish out the entry with the excess fat to show other judges. Harsh.

In tasting the brisket entries, I found many not to my liking. Most were just too sweet. Some had too much sauce. Others were a bit dry. Texture played an important role. Dryness was a killer. And the right smoke ring made for pleasing visual appeal. Some were bad. Most were so-so. But in tasting them all, one emerged from the pack.

The brisket was beautiful in shape. Just the right curves and a dark ochre crust with a red smoke ring that penetrated about 1/4" into the succulent grey meat. Cut across the grain, the sample was tender and juicy with just the slightest hint of a snap that was faint and ever-fleeting. Sauce was minimal but flavor was pronounced. Smoke, beef, hints of spice and red pepper. It was the standout of all the entries and I certainly hope it won.

In many ways, it was like judging a barista competition or any other competition. Lots of good entries. A few that were outright bad. And one that smoothly emerged above and beyond the rest of the field. I found the experience tasting these barbecues to be revelatory. Not to mention my pleasure in eating a free lunch.

Later, as we were standing under the tent chatting about the entries - actually, I was mostly just keeping my mouth shut and listening, with the occasional question, Jerry asked me if I might be interested in judging. That they would soon be hosting a judges training course in Salisbury and that I should come down and certify - if for nothing else than to just understand what it takes to compete in a KCBS-sanctioned event. I told him that I would love to attend.

So, who knows? You might be seeing me judging your meat somewhere along the 2009 KCBS BBQ Tour...

Grace Garden Again

Sichuan Beef Treasures - beef tongue, tripe and tendon mixed with scallion, peanuts & spicy Sichuan sauce, served chilled.

Many of my friends have this impression that I'm a sociable, outgoing and socially busy person who's never at home and hardly ever in town. That all may be true, but my adventures pale in comparison to my parents - whom I've been trying to take down to Grace Garden for over a month now. At least once a week, I invite them to come with me, but they're constantly busy going out with friends, going out dancing, partying or doing charitable work.

My life is downright lame compared to them.

It makes absolutely no sense for me to go to Grace Garden by myself. I couldn't eat all that I'd want to order and it would become prohibitively expensive for me just to order four dishes. I can only imagine the stares of other customers.

Empress Pork Chop - lightly fried pork chop sauteed with special tomato sauce.

Happily, we made our way down to Odenton for another round of great Chinese cooking - and by my choice, it's the best Chinese in Maryland. I've only been here twice, but the owners know me on sight and give us a big welcome. Considering that I've only been here twice, it's a bit disconcerting but very comfortable to go to places where they know you. Nice.

My usual visits have them choosing the dishes, but this time I've brought Tilly (the authentic Chinese girl) with me to do the ordering. After some careful consideration, she makes some careful choices for a balanced meal of beef, beef, beef, pork and tofu. For a moment, she thinks that we might need a steamed vegetable dish, maybe in lieu of one of the other dishes then decides against it. God bless this woman.

It's more of the same at Grace Garden, and by more of the same I mean: good. In a moment of hunger, I forget my previous resolution to order the Sichuan Treasures after the meal. Without a doubt, this is the best dish in the house. It's bold, it's tasty, it's absolutely delicious. I can't get enough. The problem is that it's such a bold dish that it overpowers everything that comes after - not to mention you've eaten so much of it that the hot peppers have set your mouth ablaze and diminished your palate's ability to discern nuances of flavor.

And every other dish on the menu is about nuances of flavor.

Beef Chow Fun - beef and rice noodles sauteed with soy sauce and bean sprouts.

If you like thin sliced and lightly crisp pork chops, then the Empress Pork Chop will suit you fine. It's covered in a sweet tomato sauce that's not too sweet, though I prefer less sweet, more pork and more vinegar. But then that would no longer be Empress Pork Chops but Pork Chops Filipino Style.

The Beef Chow Fun sported incredibly succulent and tender beef. In fact, the beef was so tender that you could hardly discern the texture from the flat noodles. Wondrous. But while it was skillfully prepared, I thought it lacked punch. It had beautiful color and aroma, but the flavors were flat. It needed more soy sauce. I so wanted to ask them for soy sauce but thought I might offend them, but I bet with a little soy sauce it would have been smashing.

Curry Beef Stew, Hong Kong Style - beef stew slow-cooked with potatoes in Hong Kong style curry sauce.

The Curry Beef Stew was the disappointment of the meal. First off, I didn't realize they had curry in China and the one curry dish I tried at a Chinese carry out was so atrocious I just thought it was a menu aberration for the local clientele. But evidently, they have curry in China.

The curry had nice color and looked tasty. Even the potatoes had been roasted separately giving them a nice texture. The curry had been stewed so long the pieces of beef were just supple and falling apart. I thought the dish lacked punch. It lacked something that I can't put my finger on. Tilly thought it had an off-flavor tasting of liver. I noticed the flavor she mentioned but thought it had more to do with the spice combination.

Home-Style Tofu - tofu sauteed with cabbage, shiitake mushroom & snow peas in hot chili sauce.

Tofu perfection was how Tilly described the tofu. I'm no tofu expert (preferring mine battered, deep fried and coated in hot sauce), so I'll defer to her assessment. According to the Chinese cuisine expert (her family has been in the restaurant business for generations), this was tofu defined: cooked just right on the outside to give it texture while remaining soft and succulent on the inside. Hmmm, it was pretty darn good tofu, to me. Now I know.

Sauteed with an assortment of vegetables, the tofu dish was quite pleasing without the batter. But for me, the shiitake mushrooms that exploded in your mouth with flavor and excruciatingly hot juices were the perfect compliment to the tofu. I ate a lot of that dish.

After three visits, we're really starting to get into the deeper sections of the menu, rather than the popular dishes made famous by other bloggers. While we're finding tasty and interesting dishes, I'm also starting to see that not everything is as stellar as the Tongue, Tripe and Tendon. It's all still very good and better than any Chinese restaurant I've been to in Maryland, but we're gonna have to do more exploration in the near future because I know you expect nothing less...

Grace Garden
1690 Annapolis Road
Odenton, MD 21113