Aug. 7 is a date that I will always remember — it was the day I got to judge my first barbecue contest, the Ohio Pork Producers Council’s rib-off at the Ohio State Fair. The panel of esteemed judges included David Black, a Franklin County grain farmer who serves on the Ohio Soybean Council’s board (which helped sponsor the best barbecue sauce portion of the event); Matt Reese, editor of Ohio’s Country Journal; Virgil Strickler, general manager of the Ohio Expo Center (a.k.a. as the Ohio State Fairgrounds), and Joel Riley, WTVN 610 AM morning host and personality.
Judging a barbecue contest involves more than eating. Pardon the pun, but it’s really not a place to pig out as Matt Reese learned the hard way last year and was still taking some good natured ribbing (once again, no pun intended) for it. It seems that Matt thought last year’s contest was a good place to chow down on every sample that they brought him to judge. And when you have nine entries and each entry
includes a two bone-in sample, that’s the equivalent of eating one and a half racks of ribs. Add to that equation that Matt likes some ribs with his sauce, and you can see how someone could very quickly get pretty full if they didn’t pace themselves. Typically, you only sample (one or two bites) each entry, unless you find one you really like, and then you gnaw it down to the bone.
Matt and I not only differ in our personal preferences for ribs (his nickname is now sauce boy), but also in how we prepared for the contest. He jogged three miles that morning to get ready; I had not consumed any barbecue for about a week. That’s a challenge for me as I love barbecue and there’s a pretty good little barbecue joint where I live now (Route 62 BBQ, Johnstown) that tempts me every time I drive by it. They have two awesome sides as well — cheesy potatoes and ranch macaroni salad. And when I go to southern Indiana to visit family a few times a year, there’s now a barbeque joint (Porky’s) in my hometown (Paoli).
Unlike Matt, I want my sauce on the side as I firmly believe that good barbecue doesn’t need much, if any, sauce. Then there’s Joel Riley who has a full beard and is the daintiest eater I’ve ever seen when it comes to barbecue. He blamed it on his first grade teacher who obviously enforced the rules of etiquette with a ruler or yard stick. If there was any question about what score sheet belonged to someone, all they needed to look for were the barbecue finger prints I left behind as evidence. I also lost count of how many wet wipes and napkins I went through.
After judging the nine barbecue rib entries, we then evaluated the same contestants for their pulled pork. Each entry in both divisions was appraised for its taste, appearance and texture. We also ascertained which contestant had the best barbecue sauce. Most of the sauces were Kansas City style sauces, meaning they typically use ketchup and molasses as their base. None of the barbecue sauces were Carolina style, which usually involves a runny, vinegar- or mustard-based sauce. And I’m sure if you asked, the pit bosses for each crew would tell you that if they used a rub, it was a closely guarded secret.
When it comes to barbecue, the rule for cooking is low and slow. Ribs should be cooked so that they bite off the bone, not fall off the bone.
As I previously mentioned, earlier this year I became a certified barbecue judge, through the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and enjoying barbeque. In the morning we went through an intensive training session and in the afternoon judged various barbeque samples. Before we went home, we all stood up, raised our right hand, and repeated the following oath, “I do solemnly swear to objectively and subjectively evaluate each Barbeque meat that is presented to my eyes, my nose, my hands and my palate. I accept my duty to be an Official KCBS Certified Judge, so that truth, justice, excellence in Barbeque and the American Way of Life may be strengthened and preserved forever.”
KCBS judges are trained in a manner that allows them to appropriately judge all types of barbeque, from St. Louis and Texas styles to Memphis and Carolina styles as contests are held in every region of the country, and as a result receive the same fair, unbiased, trained judging process for four categories — chicken, ribs, pork and brisket — that are evaluated on taste, appearance and texture.
Most experts believe the cradle of ’cue is the Carolinas, where whole-hog cooking evolved over centuries. There are at least three other widespread American styles: Memphis, Texas, and Kansas City. The differences among regional styles are the sauces and types of meat.
Kansas City barbecue is slow smoked over a variety of woods and then covered with a thick tomato- and molasses-based sauce. The KC metro area is renowned for barbecue as it has more than 100 barbecue restaurants, and I had the honor of visiting one of them, Gates & Sons Bar-B-Q, when I was in Kansas City for a conference earlier this summer.
Kansas City barbecue is characterized by its use of a wide variety of meat — pork, beef, chicken, turkey, mutton and sometimes fish — and an equally wide variety of methods of preparation. Slow-smoking – traditional barbecue – is the most common method, but dishes cooked by other means, such as grilled chicken, also can be found on the menus of local barbecue restaurants. Just about any type of barbecued meat served in the country’s other barbecue capitals, from Carolina pulled pork to Texas brisket, is served here, though burnt ends — the crusty and flavorful tips of a beef brisket or pork — are distinctive to the city.
As in St. Louis, barbecue sauce is an integral part of Kansas City barbecue. The sauces found in the region are tomato-based, with sweet, spicy and tangy flavor profiles. Most local restaurants offer several sauce varieties but the staple sauce tends to be both spicy and sweet. Ribs are mostly pork, but also come in beef varieties and can come in a number of different cuts.
Like many southern varieties of barbecue, Memphis-style barbecue is mostly made using pork, usually ribs and shoulders, though many restaurants will still serve beef and chicken. Memphis-style barbecue is slow cooked in a pit and ribs can be prepared either “dry” or “wet.” “Dry” ribs are covered with a dry rub consisting of salt and various spices before cooking, and are normally eaten without sauce. “Wet” ribs are brushed with sauce before, during, and after cooking.
Barbecue is a traditional style of preparing beef, which is considered the cuisine of Texas. Texas barbecue traditions can be divided into four general styles: East Texas, Central Texas, South Texas, and West Texas.The Central and East Texas varieties are generally the most well-known.Additionally, in deep South Texas and along the Rio Grande valley a Mexican style of meat preparation known as barbacoa can be found. The word “barbacoa” in Spanish means barbecue though in English it is often used specifically to refer to Mexican varieties of preparation.
Generally speaking the different Texas barbecue styles are distinguished as follows. In the East Texas style the beef is slowly cooked to the point that it is “falling off the bone”, typically over hickory wood, and marinated in a sweet, tomato-based sauce. In the Central Texas style the meat is rubbed with spices and cooked over indirect heat from pecan or oak wood. In the West Texas style the meat is cooked over direct heat from mesquite wood giving it a somewhat bitter taste. The South Texas style features thick, molasses-like sauces that keep the meat very moist.The barbacoa tradition is somewhat different than all of these. Though beef may be used, goat or sheep meat are common as well (sometimes even the whole animal may be used). In its most traditional form barbacoa is prepared in a hole dug in the ground.
Carolina barbecue is usually pork, served pulled, shredded, or chopped, but sometimes sliced. It may also be rubbed with a spice mixture before smoking and mopped with a spice and vinegar liquid during smoking. A popular item in North Carolina and Memphis is the pulled pork sandwich served on a bun and often topped with coleslaw.
Two styles predominate in different parts of North Carolina. Eastern North Carolina barbecue is normally made by the use of the “whole hog”, where the entire pig is barbecued and the meat from all parts of the pig are chopped and mixed together. Eastern North Carolina barbecue uses a thin sauce made of vinegar and spices (often simply cayenne pepper). Western North Carolina barbecue is made from only the pork shoulder, which is mainly dark meat, and uses a vinegar-based sauce that includes the addition of varying amounts of tomato. Western North Carolina barbecue is also known as Lexington barbecue, after the town of Lexington, North Carolina, home to many barbecue restaurants and a large barbecue festival, the Lexington Barbecue Festival (road trip!).
South Carolina has three regional styles. In western parts of the state, along the Savannah River, a peppery tomato or ketchup-based sauce is common. In the central part of the state (the Midlands), barbecue is characterized by the use of a yellow “Carolina Gold” sauce, made from a mixture of yellow mustard, vinegar, brown sugar and other spices. In the coastal “Pee Dee” region, they use the whole hog, and use a spicy, watery, vinegar-and-pepper sauce. In the Piedmont area of the state shoulders, hams, or Boston butts are used.
While less prevalent than the other Southern styles, Virginia barbecue is a fair mixture of Carolina and Memphis barbecue. The traditional meat is pork (often Virginia ham) or chicken, although more gamy meals contain venison or squirrel. Unlike Carolina barbecue, the texture of meat is sweeter and finer. However, it does contain the smoky blend of Memphis barbecue. The key ingredients are bourbon or wine, vinegar, peppers, corn, and a tomato-based sauce.
And then there’s Kentucky, which has one of the most unique traditions when it comes to barbecue in the South. In the western portion of the state, mutton is the meat of choice as pitmasters smoke whole mutton shoulders over cinderblock pits of coals, using hickory, oak, and sometimes sassafras. This region favors a worcestershire based sauce, often referred to as ‘dip.’ In the south central part of the state, “shoulder” is the choice meat. This refers to sliced pork shoulder thin sliced and smoked over live coals for 45 minutes to an hour. It is sauced a vinegar and pepper sauce, and often served on bread.
Perhaps more distinctive than Kentucky barbecue is Alabama-style as a white sauce was concocted at legendary barbecue joint in the state in the 1920s to go with barbecued chicken. It has since spread to other meats. The white sauce is a mix of mayonnaise, vinegar, salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper.
Did you realize that Columbus, Ohio, is home to a nationally acclaimed barbecue restaurant? City Barbeque brings the best of regional barbecue styles America has to offer as its pulled pork is reminiscent of the southeastern portion of the country, the brisket and sausage take you to Texas, and the ribs exude a blend of Memphis and Kansas City styles. It also smokes chicken, turkeys and other meats. This year, during Lent, it also offered barbecued salmon.
My favorite item at City Barbecue, as well as at Rudy’s in Springfield, is the pulled rib sandwich. Meat is pulled off of barbecued pork ribs, topped with coleslaw and then topped with your favorite barbecue sauce, which in my case would be slightly sweet.
Of course, we cannot talk about barbecue in Ohio without mentioning the Montgomery Inn, which got its start way back in 1951 when Matula and Ted Gregory moved into and renamed the former McCabe’s Inn as the Montgomery Inn. Matula and Ted Gregory were expecting their first child and struggling to make their way. Little did anyone know Montgomery Inn would also become their “baby.”
One night, Matula fixed barbecued ribs with her now-famous barbecue sauce; everyone who tried them raved. Soon they were on the menu and the Gregorys were running a bona fide restaurant. When a local restaurant critic dubbed Ted the “Ribs King,” history was in the making.