As a child, my parents taught me the value of humility – and it’s a trait I try to carry forward daily in my life.
Bragging, they told me, was the sign of an insecure soul. Nobody wants to hear you talk about yourself.
Mostly, I’ve found that to be true.
But when it comes to food? Step aside – I have some things to say.
I can measure two cups of water for boxed macaroni and cheese without needing any guide. I can tell you, down to the penny, how much it costs for three chalupas, a cheesy beefy burrito and large Sierra Mist at Taco Bell.
I’m also pretty handy around a slow cooker and can grill a steak to medium rare perfection without having to cut into that ambrosial piece of meat to gauge the color.
But most important, I’m a Yankee. So if there’s one thing I know nothing about, it’s barbecue of the kind y’all offer up.
Here’s a slice of knowledge for you. Above the Mason-Dixon, “barbecue” means putting a hot dog or hamburger over some coals, pulling out the metal spatula coated with last year’s grease and screaming at your neighbors about how the Red Sox are doing as the once proud cow before you withers away to nothing.
Also, the Red Sox are doing simply awful, if you’re curious.
It’s a science, really. We’re born with it.
All of which is to say that when it came time this year for the Index-Journal to offer up its slate of tasters for the prestigious Kansas City Barbeque Society’s judging at the Festival of Discovery, I was the obvious choice.
In preparation for the occasion, I trained my palate with the same kind of rigor that Dabo Swinney uses to ready his Tigers before a game. I’m not saying which of us has the better routine, but I didn’t see the coach anywhere near the Arts Center on Friday night.
I did cheat on game day, snagging a brisket sandwich for lunch. But that was as far as I went. There was not a Dorito, Mountain Dew or afternoon coffee cup in sight.
So I was ready. My entire adult life of do-it-yourself cuisine brought me to this: A literal seat at the table to cast my discerning taste buds upon the concoctions of some of America’s most skilled grillers.
I had no idea what I was doing from the get-go.
In fact, my name didn’t even appear among the initial roster given to organizers as a judge, so I lingered outside the room, praying for somebody else’s car troubles or absentmindedness to put me in line for history.
There I was, surrounded by veteran judges and newbies alike, but all I could think about was, “how am I supposed to do this?” A life of eating like a bachelor doesn’t prepare you for dainty bites of gastronomical wonders carried out among your peers.
Nevertheless, I persisted.
Our table coordinator was Cassandra Evans, a lovely woman from Gastonia, North Carolina who just qualified to preside over KCBS events in April – the Festival of Discovery was her first gig.
She explained what was about to happen: We’d be getting dishes made by competitors, who had free rein to wow us. The only stipulation was that they weren’t allowed to use any of KCBS’ staple meats: Chicken, pork ribs, pork butt and beef brisket.
“You may get seafood, you may get something with peanuts,” Julie Cook (yes, really), a KCBS contest representative, told us.
We didn’t get either. To preserve the integrity of entrants, I will not list out what we were served. Also, I didn’t take notes on what we were served because I was eating.
After the main courses, dessert came. And this wasn’t an elegantly placed macaroon on the tip of a plate. These were PIES. CAKES. COBBLERS.
My Jewish grandparents, God rest their souls, would have asked if I kept kosher. I’m just lucky I kept upright with the volume of food that came at us.
But I left the experience with a deeper appreciation for the nuanced, competitive and incredibly skilled methodology that goes into creating some of America’s best barbecue – a Southern tradition I’m happy to be indoctrinated into.
I also left with a new headstone option, courtesy of Evans.
“I don’t like people who don’t like food,” she said.
Same, Cassandra, same.