Rising to the challenge of brisket judging

By Jimmy Alford | Published Wednesday, June 4, 2014

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I grew up eating and cooking brisket. I must have eaten it thousands of times.

Every birthday, Boy Scout event, wedding, holiday and funeral saw brisket sliced, chopped and plated.

Jimmy Alford

Jimmy Alford

I’ve been on the other side of the plate many times as well. My family smoker blazed with sweet, smoky satisfaction many days and nights, burning pecan, oak and mesquite. So when the opportunity to put my years of experience to good use presented itself, I jumped at it.

Volunteers were sorely needed to judge barbecue last weekend at the first BBQ Challenge, a Texas State Championship event held in conjunction with the PBR Challenge in Decatur.

The inaugural cookoff had been a hit, attracting many pit masters who competed for cash and bragging rights.

Cooks competed in several categories including beans, chicken, ribs and brisket. When the call went out for volunteers, I chose the latter and joined the other couple dozen judges.

I don’t know what I expected, but judging was a totally different animal. We all have opinions about what is good and what is not. I certainly do – but I have never used my discerning palate like this.

I sat down and stared at the sheet in front of me. It was the official International Barbeque Cookers Association (IBCA) rules.

Most of the rules were pretty standard, but one stuck out – no talking to your fellow judges or you’ll be asked to leave and your judging sheet destroyed.

Those who know me have likely figured out I have a slight problem running my mouth, so this part of the judging process was a challenge.

Scenarios raced through my head like teenage nightmares – like coming to school naked and everyone laughing at you.

In my mind, though, I was nearly done judging and the last plate was placed in front of me. Hot, steamy and beautiful brisket. I take a bite and can’t believe how good it is.

So good, I have to tell someone.

Then I get the boot and I’m tarred with hot barbecue sauce, feathered with coleslaw and pieces of my ripped-up judging sheet.

This delirious daydream could have been encouraged in part by the fact this was the last of the judging for the day, and everyone was a little tired and cranky – waiting to snap.

All around were people I knew. Others from the Messenger were there as well as the community. I had to be on my best behavior and focus on the task at hand.

Aroma, color, texture, taste and an overall opinion of each entry was to be considered and then combined to give a score of 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest.

This kind of scoring is nothing new. We all do it. Surprisingly, though, not everyone uses the system the same way – and how a person uses it can say a lot about them.

I have my own philosophy, and if there is a competitor from Saturday reading this who doesn’t agree – that’s just too bad.

First, I take a single bite, and if I can’t figure out how well I like it based on that, it must not be that great.

In my mind, a perfect 10 is unattainable. If I got a plate of brisket in front of me that was a 10, I would forget about that weird daydream I had earlier, throw caution to the wind and just jump up and tell everyone how awesome it was. Or I might just steal away with plate in hand, not willing to share with my fellow judges.

It’s not impossible I guess, but pretty unlikely.

On the other hand, I don’t think anyone could get less than a 5, unless they cooked the wrong animal or served it not rare, but raw.

There were five categories to judge on: aroma, color, texture, taste and an overall opinion of each entry. If the meat is there and cooked, then each of those choices can’t be blank in my opinion.

Let’s be honest, if a brisket is getting 5s, it’s not winning the day.

I tasted 14 different briskets and most landed a 5,6 or 7. Three stood above the rest – one got an 8 and two scored 9s.

When you’re contemplating the meal in front of you, you really start to reevaluate yourself and what you like.

I discovered that I can like something but still understand it is not the best. That is tough sometimes.

We are programmed to fight for our beliefs and that trickles down into every aspect of our lives, including food.

The one brisket I rated an 8 was my favorite of the day. The flavor was unlike any of the others. It was spicy. The smell and taste lingered long after my bite. It was good heat, too.

But it was not perfect. In fact it was likely not a good fit for many people. It was rebellious and while I like that, that’s not everything.

In the end, I had to consider the fact that the spicy nature I liked so much was hiding the flavor of the meat itself. All of its personality was surface.

Two other briskets came across my station that were so good I marked down 9 with no hesitation. They had it all without seasoning that totally masked the meat itself.

After every plate was passed, I left feeling pretty good about the job I did.

I have no idea if one of the briskets I judged won or not, but that’s OK.

I believe I upheld the family’s honor.

Jimmy Alford is a reporter, photographer and page designer for the Wise County Messenger.

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