It's fair to say that whichever regional BBQ camp you sit in (Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Memphis to name but a few), you probably wouldn't mention New Mexico as a 'style' but it fell on my itinerary specifically due to a BBQ event going on there. BBQ contests are a big deal in the US and they involve teams battling it out to be crowned 'Best ribs in the State', and the like. As well as bragging rights and kudos, there's pretty big prize money to be had in these events ($16k at this one) which leads to some teams actually running a professional outfit to travel the US trying to claim all the prize money they can along the way. Imagine a mini festival with loads of RVs and trucks towing huge horizontal trailer smokers. This BBQ culture is a far cry from the rusty Argos grill that is in most UK back gardens, so I figured attending a contest was a worthwhile part of my 'journey'. The other reason for attending this event was that it offered the chance for me to enrole in a Certified Barbecue Judging course. I figured if I was going to start selling BBQ food, I could do with acquiring some rubber-stamped credibility from people who know their stuff. This event, 'Smokin' on the Pecos', offered me the chance to do such a course, and was just a few hours drive away from Texas in a small oil and gas town called Artesia NM.
I think I'd be right in saying that I'm the first overseas guest to attend Smokin' on the Pecos. I know this because the organisers announced me as such in front of the judging class, and then in front of the entire event, at it's close. The organisers, David and Vicky, and the KCBS instructors made me feel very welcome, and nothing was too much trouble. I was 'The British Guy' for those few days and everyone was eager to introduce themselves and tell me about who they knew in the UK, or when they had been to visit. Many of them had actually known of my attendance at the event before I arrived, as the local newspaper ran an interview of me the week before the event. Not sure the BBC picked it up in their global round-up...but you can find it if you look hard enough on p8 of the link below.
The judging course was all I'd hoped for. The instructors were knowledgable, dynamic and ran a fun course. There was a good combination of taught material and practical elements, where we had to grade various freshly cooked products as if they were a competition plate. They told us to what to look for in each of the main categories, and talked us through the non-conformities that could lead to a dreaded 'D-Q', that's a disqualification to you. Some of these disqualifiable offences seemed justified, like 'wrong meat' (e.g. putting forward a plate of pork ribs for the beef brisket category) or 'undercooked meat' (nobody wants raw chicken). Yet, others seemed very perculiar indeed, like what leaves were allowed to be used as a garnish and what were not. For example, green lettuce and parsely: fine. Red-tipped lettuce or kale, that's a 'D-Q' I'm afraid partner. The other large bone of contention I have with KCBS is that they prohibit the consumption of alcohol during, or before judging. That's right, NO BEERS WITH THE BBQ. It was a much dryer weekend than I'd anticipated.
The next day, fresh from the course and having sworn a BBQ oath (see below), I was a fully certified as a KCBS Judge and I was judging the New Mexico State BBQ contest. Oh yes. This involved 4 rounds (chicken, pork ribs, pork, brisket), and at each I was expected to diligently judge 6 anonymised samples against appearance, taste and tenderness criteria. The judging room was a cross between an exam room (no talking, judges marking in silence) and an all you can eat BBQ buffet. Needless to say all samples need not be finished, but as my instructor Ralph (pictured below with wife Karen) put it "when have you ever put down a good rib?"
After the judging had finished, full of meat and new knowledge I took a wander around the site with my new mate, and fellow judge Glen. We watched some of the horseback shooting that was going on, met a couple of cowboys and Glen introduced me to the delicacy of 'Rocky Mountain Oysters', a sliced, breaded and fried calf's bollock. Just what i needed after 24 samples of competition meat. (picture below is of me, Glen and Shrimpy the horse)
Over the weekend I had the chance to meet some of the competitors to talk serious BBQ too. Met a really nice family/BBQ team (Cary, Mel and gang aka the Outlaws Smokeshack) who gave me loads of advice. Just so happened that the next day they took home 'Best Brisket' prize, so that advice is pretty valuable! Picture below is of Cary and his prize-winning smoker.