MURPHYSBORO — After covering barbecue competitions and hanging out because they are really fun, I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things about barbecue.

That knowledge was tested Friday morning during judging for the National Barbecue and Grilling Association’s Awards of Excellence. I was asked to help judge barbecue sauce and rubs.

The judging is done at 17th Street Warehouse in Murphysboro under the independent direction of the Rend Lake Culinary Arts School in Ina, according to National BBQ’s website. The contest is run by the very competent staff of 17th Street Barbecue.

This year’s contest had 406 items, including sauces, dry rubs and seasonings, and barbecue items (tools, accessories, gift packs, clothing, hats and product labels).

Hall of Fame Pitmaster Mike “The Legend” Mills, owner of 17th Street Barbecue and past president of NBBQ, along with Chef Jeff Fairbanks of Rend Lake College and Samantha Graff of 17th Street Barbecue, gave instructions to the judges.

Scoring runs from 10 to 6 with 10 being the best. Sauces and rubs are judged for appearance, taste and texture. Decimals are allowed for sauces that were close in scores.

“Something that I would never put in my mouth again would get a 6,” Graff said.

“Texture is judged without meat. Just rub your tongue on the roof of your mouth,” Fairbanks suggested.

Judging is by comparison, so judges choose their favorites from a group of five or six samples on the table they are judging.

“You can’t judge the first sauce until you have tasted another,” Mills said. “Comparison judging means you have to taste all five before can make a mark.”

Judging is blind. Labels are covered so judges cannot see the name of the submission.

“I want to make this think as fair as we possibly can,” Mills told the judges.

He reminded them that the sauces they do not like are someone’s favorite.

After instruction, it’s time for judging. Sauces in one category, like tomato spicy or vinegar mild, are judged before moving to the next category. Judges are not allowed to talk until all score sheets for the table are turned in.

I judged tomato mild, tomato spice, white sauce, vinegar mild and vinegar spicy sauces, along with beef, pork and poultry rubs. Rubs and seasonings have become so popular and get so many entries that they were divided by the kind of meat they best complement.

During the competition, I was surprised by flavors in two categories I would have said I do not like — white barbecue sauces and vinegar sauces. I actually liked two of the four white sauces in the competition.

White barbecue sauce, sometimes called Alabama white barbecue sauce, is typically a tangy mayonnaise-based sauce with vinegar, horseradish and mustard. Honestly, I don’t really care for any of those ingredients.

I also really liked one of the vinegar-based sauces. It had a balanced flavor that I found very appealing.

During the competition, judges keep a list of their favorites. When judging is complete, they are allowed to take a few of their favorite flavors home. Since the labels are covered, grabbing a favorite is the only to identify them.

My favorite sauce for the day was a spicy tomato called Chipotle Q from Urban Q Smokehouse.

I found too many rubs and seasonings that were good, but they were very different for different meats. I should note that almost all of the rubs are all purpose or good on anything, according to their labels.

My favorites for beef included Suckle Busters “best in Texas” 1836 BBQ Rub and Company 7. For pork, I liked Meat Mitch Naked Rub. My favorite rubs were both for poultry, Fat Boy Sweet Rub and Boars Night Out White Lightning.

As Mills always says, what matters most in barbecue is what you and your friends and family like. We will see how well I did in March. 

Besides getting to taste a lot of new sauces and rubs, the day is fun. It is serious work, but also serious fun.

Talk about serious fun, I went through a couple rounds of judging with Xavier Lee of Memphis, an SIUC student; Malik Wilson of Carbondale, a recent SIUC graduate; and Michael Stephens of Chicago, Amber Hadley of Marion and Alexis Hadley of Marion, all students at Rend Lake College. They laughed their way through judging. 

If you are interested in food competition, 17th Street Barbecue will host its annual 17th Street Chili Smackdown on Feb. 17 at the Warehouse. A cover charge of $5 will get you appetizers, chili and music. If you have a great chili recipe, entries are $10 and due by Feb. 13. Prizes will be awarded for first through sixth place. For an entry form, call 618-684-8902.

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Reporter

Marilyn Halstead is a reporter covering Williamson County.

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