By Clint Confehr
Senior Staff Writer
Judging barbecue is serious business, according to folks in Lewisburg's Rock Creek Park last weekend where the Rotary Club presented its Festival on the Rocks and one of the basic qualifications for being a judge was made clear.
"They all came hungry," Kay Dalton, wife and fellow judge of Marshall County Sheriff Norman Dalton, said Saturday when she got confirmation immediately from barbecue judge Victor Herrin of Wade Brown Road who said "You have to show up with an appetite."
In the shade of a tent near the judging tables, Rotarian Angie Binkley refocused on the basic facts of the barbecue contest.
"This is very serious," Binkley said. "These men and women have been here three days. Enjoy the food, but take it seriously."
With Herrin, the Daltons, County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett, Lewisburg Councilmen Robin Minor and Odie Whitehead Jr., just to name a few area residents tapped to judge the backyard barbecue, was state Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville.)
"Pretty serious," Tracy said. "I used to judge Smyrna and have judged during the (Tennessee Walking Horse National) Celebration in Shelbyville" where barbecue contests have been held on a regular basis.
Taste, tenderness and presentation of the meat are qualities barbecue judges use to compare one rib against another. Brisket and chicken were also consumed for comparison in two broad categories; those between professionals and between backyard cookers.
When it comes to judging the professional cookers, "We make sure that the judges are from out of town so they stay in the hotels," Binkley said. "We got a $5,000 grant from the county's Economic and Community Development/Tourism Committee."
The ECD/Tourism Committee controls spending of money received by the county in hotel-motel room rent taxes.
"I want them (the judges) to pay it right back," Binkley said, listing hometowns for the judges who tasted barbecue in the professional category: Southside, Ala., Murray, Ky, Athens and Decatur, Ala., Chattanooga, Tenn., Treemont, Miss., and Attala, Ala.
"We've had more teams than ever before," Binkley said. "Fifty teams is a lot of teams."
Rotarian Jeff Jordan was a significant early organizer for the club's barbecue cook off and he continues to be the man who gets the cookers. Binkley gets the judges. It's not hard to get people to judge barbecue.
"They find me," she said Saturday afternoon. "We had 60 judges this year. Monday, I'll open my e-mail and have applications to be a judge" next year.
The Rotarians' Festival on the Rocks was the venue for the sixth-annual barbecue cook off. It's the second they've held in the spring. Previously, it was in October when the Goats Music & More Festival is held in Rock Creek Park.
"There have been four barbecue cook-offs so far this year," said Jeremy Winsett of Fayetteville.
His mother and stepfather, Brenda and Terry Buchanan of Fayetteville, compete as the team called High on the Hawg. They won the grand championship, or best of the show, trophy last year.
Lewisburg Rotarians added a carnival to their festival this year and, while the midway had its own crowds in the cool evenings last week, Winsett replied diplomatically about the additional amusements.
"I'm from Fayetteville. We have our own," he said referring to the annual Lincoln County Fair, widely recognized as a major event.
Another new attraction at Festival on the Rocks was the availability of barbecue for sale by competitors.
The Buchanans didn't sell their barbecue. They took it to their next-door neighbors whose 5,000-square-foot house burned last week, Winsett said. The neighbors are now living in a camper trailer parked in their driveway.
Barbecue judges score the meat from one to nine. Nine is excellent. Six is average. Two is uneatable.
"We're not looking for perfection," Preston said. "That's a 10 and we don't have that on the scorecard.
"Give it what it deserved," he continued. "If you don't want to share it with your significant other because it's that good, give it a nine.
"Some years ago, we had all nines at one table," Preston said of what he recalls as exceptionally good barbecue.
Binkley invited questions from the local judges and Minor spoke up.
"Suppose you give the first one an eight and then you find there's something much better," the councilman asked.
Preston replied, "You judge it for what it is."
In the end, it was clear that long division and other mathematical calculations were needed to reach the conclusion that the Swiggin' Pig team - that's Barry, Francene and Brooke Johnson of Nashville - had the best barbecue in the park.
Swigggin' Pig's score was 705.1428 out of a possible 720 points.
"It's consistency," Barry Johnson said of what led to his victory.
He won two second place ribbons, and ribbons for placing fourth and third in different categories.
"We do this full-time," Johnson said, reconfirming the Rotarians' point to local judges.
Judging is serious business.