The Butt Stops Here

Pork butt, that is. Also brisket, chicken and ribs. Kansas City Barbeque Society master judge Diane Mullaney rates ’em as she tastes ’em.

The paper mat on which entries are arranged.
The paper mat on which entries are arranged.
Photo by Ty Foster

In 2009, at her first barbecue competition, in Mays Landing, Diane Mullaney raised her right hand, turned to face Kansas City and took the oath required of all Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) certified judges. Before she could start nibbling pork butt (pulled pork), pork ribs, chicken and brisket, she vowed to carefully evaluate each entry to preserve “truth, justice, excellence in barbecue and the American way of life…”

Mullaney and her husband, Jay, who live in Red Bank, had grown curious about the competitive barbecue circuit when an acquaintance—a winner and a judge himself—invited them over and smoked what Mullaney describes as “the best brisket we’d ever tasted.”

No, the chagrined chef apologized. He’d been experimenting, and his brisket had emerged overdone and under-seasoned.

The Mullaneys, who like cooking and eating and have been known to plan road trips around highly praised pizzerias or burger joints, pondered this. “I couldn’t comprehend how something I thought was delicious was mediocre at best to someone else,” Diane says. “What’s the mystique? What are we missing?”

To find out, they decided to become KCBS judges, which involves a full day of instruction capped by a mock scoring of all four meats. In 2012, she and Jay completed the even more elaborate requirements to become master judges—two of only six in Jersey. “It was the next achievement in barbecue,” she explains.

Now they spend much of spring through fall traveling to KCBS-sanctioned cook-offs from Maryland to Connecticut. They have judged 52 competitions to date, assessing whether someone’s pork feels mushy (a no-no) or a too-fiery sauce detracts from the tang of beef (a no-no-no). Tastings are blind, with entries brought to judges by KCBS table captains in styrofoam boxes identified only by numbers.

However high-testosterone barbecue looks in televised combat, or was in the past, women are taking their places at judging tables, Mullaney says. A quick tally of first names shows that the KCBS “100+ Club,” whose elite members have judged at least 100 contests (Mullaney’s next goal), is close to 30 percent female. Especially in the Northeast, “we’re increasingly seeing husband-and-wife teams,” Mullaney says. “I’ve never felt unwelcome or inferior, nor have I been treated like a girl.”

But she is, like all judges, subject to a raft of finicky rules. “We’re not allowed to fraternize with the teams before the judging,” she says. “You can only drink water and you can cleanse your palate with a lightly salted cracker.” Finger-licking is verboten and scented wipes discouraged; damp washcloths are preferred.

Judges, who retake the oath at each contest, do not get paid—in fact, they foot their own travel expenses. Both Mullaneys have full-time jobs. Diane is marketing and communications director for a Freehold distributor of charcoal and propane products.

At times, it can sound like hardship duty (well, almost). Mullaney, 41, has enjoyed judging the New Jersey state championships in North Wildwood in July, but “it’s pretty much always 100 degrees.” At least the organizers pump air conditioning into the judges’ tent. A frigid weekend at the Dover Speedway in Delaware one October presented the opposite challenge. “It was raining and muddy,” she recalls. “The winds were horrible; some competitors’ tents blew over. We ended up running out to Walmart to get hand warmers.”

Among the compensations, on the other hand: exceptionally scrumptious food compared to even the best barbecue restaurants.

One reason is that would-be winners invest hundreds of dollars in their meat. “They’re buying cream-of-the-crop brisket,” Mullaney points out. “That’s probably not what they’re serving at their restaurant, because then a brisket sandwich would cost $30. It wouldn’t make sense.” Besides, competitive teams can experiment with rubs, injected seasonings and cooking techniques, while restaurants need to maintain consistency and reasonable labor costs.

If Mullaney sounds fixated on brisket, it’s because that’s her personal weakness. “A good, beefy taste with a little bit of smoke, that’s what I like,” she says. “Prize-winning brisket, when you pull on the slice, there’s a little give and then it comes apart—but it doesn’t fall apart. That means it’s cooked perfectly.”

Ditto for ribs. “The perfect rib—this is a huge misconception—does not fall off the bone,” Mullaney says. “When you take a bite, your bite mark will actually stay in the rib.”
Judges need to be knowledgeable in all four categories and score each meat on appearance, tenderness and taste. The point scale runs from 1 (disqualification for a rule infraction, like leaving a foreign object—an errant toothpick, say—in the box, or submitting the wrong meat at the wrong time) to 9 (“excellent”). Disqualification is embarrassing, but almost worse is a score of 2, which means “inedible.”

Food represents only part of the attraction for judges, though. Despite the aggressive shenanigans of pit-war TV shows, “it’s really a culture of friendly camaraderie,” Mullaney has found. “Yes, it’s a competition, and people want to win bragging rights and take a trophy home, but everybody’s going to help everybody.”

When Hurricane Sandy devastated the Jersey Shore, for instance, volunteers from OBR—Operation Barbecue Relief, founded in 2011 after tornadoes tore through Joplin, Missouri—arrived in trucks full of donated supplies and set up operations in parking lots in Brick and Neptune, then Hoboken.

“If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense: They know how to cook when there’s no electricity,” Mullaney points out. “They know how to cook if it’s windy and you’re outside. They were serving hot meals to first responders, the police and firefighters and first-aid people working crazy shifts. A pulled-pork sandwich probably tasted really good to them.”

Mullaney’s own most memorable hunk of competitive barbecue? Despite her brisket predilection, it was a pork sparerib. She remembers, dreamily, the date (2010) and the place (the Wildwood state championships). “Probably the best rib I’ve had to this day,” she sighs. “It was delicious. You could taste the meat, a little bit of smoke, great sauce, but not too much.”

Judges learn to pace themselves—a few bites from each entry can add up to a couple of pounds of meat ingested within two hours. “But that one,” she says happily, “I ate the whole thing. I didn’t want to share.”

Paula Span writes The New Old Age column for the New York Times and teaches journalism at Columbia University. She lives in Montclair.

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