By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News
I’ll be completely honest and say there are definitely some perks I enjoy by working for a newspaper. Granted, it’s not all fun and games, but when Honcho Gregory, coordinator for the Smokin’ Eagles International Barbecue Festival suggests you sign up to judge his event, who in their right mind — other than perhaps a vegetarian — is going to say no?
Somehow this reporter has found herself in some pretty unique situations over the past several months working for the Tonawanda News. I’ve learned to fly remote-control airplanes, I’ve stood on replicas of the Niña and Pinta, and now I’ve judged a barbecue contest.
I don’t have to tell you which was my favorite. I also don’t have to tell you how strongly I feel about good barbecue after growing up in a state pretty well known for this method of preparing meat.
I immediately texted my father after Honcho’s invitation, thinking he might be proud to know his daughter would represent at such an event. I like to think — and I’m sure he does too — that he’s a bit of an expert on barbecue, chili, Mexican food and generally speaking, all things spicy.
I wasn’t surprised, then, when he responded: “What do they know about BBQ?” “They,” meaning Western New Yorkers.
Turns out, “they” know a whole lot.
Despite what I felt I already knew about barbecue, I did a little research heading into the Aug. 13 event. Bless you, Wikipedia. I had a feeling the folks I’d be meeting and judging alongside would really know their stuff.
There are a ton of different opinions and styles when it comes to barbecuing meat. Certain sauces are favored in certain parts of the country and rubs are as unique as the individuals doing the cooking, but one thing is absolute: It needs to be slow-cooked in a smoker. Grilling and barbecuing are not the same thing, folks.
Honcho told me I’d need to take the judging newbie class the night before competition and I was glad for it — we learned how to judge chicken, pork butt, ribs and brisket in terms of appearance, tenderness and taste. There was also an apple pie category ... oh boy!
I’m pretty sure I was the newest newbie of the lot as I sat there listening to these other would-be judges talk about their smokers, their past successes in competition, how long it took to perfect their spice rub recipe.
I took the opportunity to grill — yes, I said it — everyone with questions.
Yes, meat can be too tough if it’s undercooked — who knew? — but it can also be too mushy. Brisket should have a smoke ring, which is a layer of pink just under the crust, or bark, of the meat. And for some, it’s the flavor of the meat without any sauce that really matters. It should have a nice smoky flavor, one judge pointed out.
I have to admit I was worried that maybe I wouldn’t taste things right ... that maybe I would be wrong in thinking one batch of ribs tasted best when everyone else thought otherwise. Not so. Yes, something like the tenderness of the meat can be a pretty objective observation, but as far as taste, it’s all up to what you like best.
All told there were about 20 judges, both new and experienced, both locals and some from as far away as Texas and Ontario. We each judged anywhere from three to five entries for each category. Do the math ... things were a little uncomfortable for a few of us at the end of the day, myself included.
But it was between the judging — chicken at 11 a.m., ribs at noon, etc. — that was really the most fun. We were able to walk around the festival, trying to burn off some of those extra calories to prepare for the next round, but we also just sat around and chatted.
I met one woman, Cheryl, who I was delighted to learn pretty faithfully reads my cooking columns. We sometimes sit here in our little cave of a newsroom knowing that while what we do for a job is printed and published for thousands of people to read, we somehow never imagine we’ll actually run in to any readers out in the real world.
I also picked the brain of a fellow Texan, Angie — who was there in the midst of a long road trip to Maine — on her thoughts on making good tamales, queso blanco, tortillas from scratch and chili.
A couple from Ontario offered to share their recipe for canning tomato sauce.
And we topped the whole day off with five, count ‘em, five whole slices of apple pie.
It was a hard job, but as they say, somebody’s gotta do it. And I’ll certainly be doing it again next year, if Honcho will have me.
Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 116.