Smokin’ | Ethos Magazine
Published in Ethos Magazine‘s Fall 2011 issue. NW Barbecuers crank up the heat to compete against other chefs for finger-licking glory.
Lynnae Oxley slaves over a plastic white box with immense concentration, her fingers flying as she ensures her entry for the judges is no less than perfect. The box contains ribs she began cooking hours ago. Now with only four minutes left, Oxley carefully frames the ribs with parsley and, after two days of cooking five different types of meat, carries her final entry in for review.
Oxley is a competitive barbecuer.
“This is my fourth summer [competing],” says Oxley, who has worked in food service for 30 years. After being introduced to competitive barbecue by her neighbor, she was hooked. “I was fascinated. I was blown away and thought it was amazing that something could taste that good.”
Oxley is the owner of Sugar’s Barbecue and Catering based out of Portland, Oregon. Barbecue is not commonly associated with the Northwest, but has found a following in all corners of the nation.
“The Carolinas are vinegar-based and mustard-based. They like it tangy. Texas is big on their brisket; it’s smoky and savory,” says John McGee, who owns Wine Country “Q,” a private catering company and barbecue team based in Duvall, Washington. Although the Northwest is known more for bike trails than grill marks, this small community has created a barbecue classification in its own right.
“Up here it’s all about balance,” McGee says. “The judges don’t like it too sweet, too spicy, too wet, too dry.”
Oxley and McGee are members of the Pacific Northwest BBQ Association (PNWBA), which holds several monthly competitions in Oregon, Washington, and Canada. Prizes vary by competition, but the typical first place award is $250 and a trophy. Some PNWBA events are qualifiers for larger national competitions, where the grand prize can be up to $125,000. Like any competitive endeavor, barbecue changes its nature when there is a time constraint and objective involved.
“You work with what you got based on your cunning, your knowledge, and your skill,” Oxley says.
Categories are broken down by type of food, ranging from chicken to brisket. Each entry is due every couple of hours throughout the course of a competition. There is often a timed auxiliary category in which participants are thrown a cooking curve ball. In some cases, they are given a bag of vegetables to make a sauce; other times, they must prepare an uncommon meat. Whatever the event, competitive cooks have to tailor their entries to what the judges want.
“It’s an old adage that if you hate your food the judges will generally like it, and if you really like it the judges will hate it,” Oxley says.
There isn’t a surefire recipe for success, she adds. At the end of the day it comes down to judges’ preference, which doesn’t always align with what the cook likes.
“Every year [judges’ preference] seems to change, but not a lot. It’s not like one year they like it sweet and the next year they like spicy. It’s very subtle nuances,” Oxley explains. “It takes me two to three contests at the start of the summer to figure out what the judges are wanting. To me, it keeps things exciting.”
When it comes to the actual judging, competitions are double-blind and a submission is rated in three areas: texture, taste, and appearance.
“It’s fun to be a judge because you’ve been a cook and you know what [the participants] are trying to achieve,” says Ryan Ositis of the PNWBA. To become a PNWBA judge, one has to take a certified judging class hosted by the association. A background in barbecue isn’t required though it is often the case for many of the judges.
Ositis also judges for the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), the largest barbecue organization in the US with over 14,000 members. The KCBS hosts the American Royal World Series of Barbecue. With over 500 participating teams, it is the world’s largest barbecue competition.
Although scores are based on preference, judges try to be as objective as possible. “These people work really hard on their food,” Ositis says. “As cooks, they spend lots of money and lots of time. To honor that you have to understand that you have to be really serious and really dedicated [as a judge].”
The qualifying competitions hosted by the PNWBA allow winners to advance to national competitions, such as the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue (known in competitive circles as “the Jack”). Both Oxley and McGee participated in the competition last year in Lynchburg, Tennessee.
“I was looking at my opponents. I was looking at who was signed up to judge,” Oxley says. “What they like, what they don’t. Stylizing my food and really looking at it from a big picture perspective.”
Since the competition is held in Tennessee, the participants know to change their barbecue to fit the preferences of that region’s judges.
“We finished in the middle of the pack, and after the competition my wife asked a team that did well, ‘What do they like down here?,’” McGee recalls. “They all answered in unison: ‘They like it sweet!’”
The McGees hope to return to the Jack this year, but getting a place at the championship means earning an invitation. For this honor, a participant has to win a number of qualifiers (a competition with at least 25 entries) in the months leading up to the Jack. Each win earns a bung, or whiskey cork, with the competitor’s name. The cork is placed into the barrel of the state where the competition was held. The more bungs in the barrel, the greater the likelihood of receiving an invitation to the Jack.
“We’re in search of a few bungs, and we’ll go a little further [from home] if it’s a qualifier,” says Rhana, McGee’s wife and fellow barbecue lover.
Heated as competitions are, Oxley says relationships among the cooks usually stay amicable.
“Most of us are all friends; it’s very civil. We’re all supporting each other, helping each other out,” she says. Although Oxley has won a number of trophies from competing and even earned a banner from the Jack, the prizes aren’t her primary source of motivation. “It’s the people; that’s what keeps me coming back.”