This Saturday, I had the luck to serve as a judge at the 22nd Annual Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg, Tennessee. More than 25,000 people descended on the town, population 361, to attend the event.
I was sent off to a judging class on Friday before the competition, and I'm now proud to say that I am certified to judge any KCBS (Kansas City Barbecue Society) event in the country.
When Saturday morning arrived, I was seated at a judges' table between barbecue legends Ardie Davis, a charter member of the KCBS, and Silky O'Sullivan, whose namesake Memphis bar is famed for its beer-drinking goats.
I ate A LOT of barbecue over a period of more than four hours as we had to judge seven categories -- sauce, homeland cooking, chicken, ribs, pork, brisket and dessert. The most important lesson I learned that day was pace yourself. I was told that if I ate every sample I was served, I would consume 4 pounds of meat. Insane.
After the judging, I had the chance to walk through the Square while the scores where tabulated. It was quite a scene. Dogs in dresses. Sweet tea in massive tumblers. Live banjo pickin'. And a Harley Davidson tent right across from a lady who sells sun visors she makes for dogs.
You could get a fried hot dog or buy a brownie to support the local softball team, as well as visit the Jack Daniel's shops central to the square. It was all kind of like the State Fair covered in barbecue sauce. After a quick perusal, I made my way through the hollow where all of the teams were set up and had done their competition cooking.
Since no fraternizing is allowed before the competition, it wasn't until after the judging that I made my way through row after row of the campers and trailers. Sixty-one domestic and 15 international teams competed, including one from Plano. They call themselves Smoke n' Ice.
The team was all hugs and smiles when I walked up and introduced myself as a fellow North Texas. The team is made up of Mack and Sharon Yarbrough and the couple's youngest daughter, Erica, and her husband, Jeff.
After introducing themselves they quickly introduced me to Freddie. "We call him our designer dog," Sharon said, pointing to the stuffed Armadillo posed proudly in front of their trailer. Then Sharon began to tell me about how they had come to be at the Jack this year.
"It took us 11 years to get here," Sharon told me. "We are so happy." They have been entering competitions every month and, sometimes, every week, in order to qualify for the Jack. They finally got their big break when they won a contest in Ohio last October.
"There are only three barbecue contests in Ohio," Sharon explained "So we had 1 in 3 chances of getting invited to the Jack." Soon after they found out that they had been invited, they won the title of Grand Champion at the Bedford Blues and BBQ. "We didn't even care, we were so excited about the Jack."
Smoke n 'Ice say they fell into barbecue (metaphorically speaking) while living in Seattle years ago. They kept on cooking when they moved to Plano and bought Maudee's Café in the Park Cities in 2005, where they serve lunch as well as afternoon tea to clientele that they tell me includes Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson.
Rumor has it they have a cilantro soup that people flip for. Will have to check that out. And the pair told me that visitors from England have said the tea they serve is as good or better than what they can get across the pond.
Sharon was tickled over the attention they received at the event. The executive food editor of Saveur stopped by to meet them and photographer Ed Rode photographed her homeland entry of lamb chops with thinly sliced potatoes that she forms into rosettes and then roasts in oven.
The whole experience was a serious slice of Americana. Especially at the ceremony when the winners were announced. People were crying and cheering and hugging. Although people certainly want to win, (bragging rights when it comes to the Jack are primo) the event was more of an old-home week than anything else.
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QUAU, a team from Brimfield, Illinois, won the title of Grand Champion. And one of my favorite offerings of the day, a Vanilla Bean Jack Milkshake served with a ice cold chocolate mousse cake, made by the team Moo Cow, won first prize for dessert and a perfect score.
But the most exciting news of the day for this Dallasite was that Smoke n' Ice won Fourth Place in the pork category out of seventy-six entries.
And when the Volunteer of the Year award was presented to Tony Stone, he took the microphone in his hand and said to the standing room only crowd, "Did you realize that when we sang "The Star Spangled Banner" not a man in the room had his hat on? It's the South y'all."
It sure was.