BRADY — Judge Jim Stewart eyes the goat horn hanging around my neck and warns me, “As a rookie, in the first round you’re going to see things you ain’t never seen.”
It wasn’t that bad. Although most of it wasn’t that good either.
Judging the Brady World Championship BBQ Goat Cook-off involves a get-together brunch, several hours of talking and joking amongst themselves — many are longtime friends — in the shade at Richards Park, and a few hours of actual judging.
The judging process begins when cookers start bringing their goat samples to the pavilion in the center of the action. There is a ticket at the bottom of the styrofoam box, taped in place, but nothing else is allowed in or on the box except goat. Cooked, hopefully. No garnish, no foil.
Those boxes are evenly spread across nine tables, up to 20 per table. (If that doesn’t add up to the 200 entrants, we were told earlier that some teams get deep enough into celebrating their cooking that they don’t make the turn-in.) In the middle are several tubs of water, soda and beer — official, of course, so the judges can clear the palate between samples. On each table is a styrofoam box with grapes and cheese, presumably for samples so bad that beer can’t erase them.
Judges are already assigned to each table. I had table 8, along with four others. The table captain, a more experienced fellow (and we were mostly male, with maybe a half-dozen women judges) numbered the boxes and offered last-minute advice.
Among the other judges were former NFL player-turned-wine grape grower Alphonse Dotson (carrying an insulated bag of wine and making friends wherever he goes), state representative J.D. Sheffield and Texas Highways writer Lois Rodriguez.
The judging begins. Doesn’t matter which box you start with, first round has 20 samples. Open it, pick a piece with a plastic fork, and start chewing. And there is chewing, and ruminating, and chewing and ruminating, then often spitting into a cardboard trashcan. Yes, unless you are a hungry, hungry hero, you cannot eat 50 samples of goat. You must spit some or most samples out. The spitting was often indelicate, but you were not alone.
I quickly settled on the idea that I would eat samples I thought were good and spit out those that were average or bad.
Once each sample is scored on a scale of 1 to 7 by each judge, the scores for each sample were added up. 24. 19. 7. 18. 11. In this round, the 5 boxes with the lowest scores are placed on the ground. While our judges often disagreed on what samples were a 5 or 6, there was seldom any disagreement on what scored a 1 or 2. The bad ones were easy to pick out. Nothing like a hunk of hardly-cooked meat coated in lighter fluid.
The groups of judges all switch places to the next table, where we get a fresh score sheet, cleanse the palate again (ugh, lighter fluid) and reduce our 15 samples to the best 10. Then at the next table, those 10 samples are reduced to the best 5. Presumably by now the worst samples have been eliminated, but each table offers up a new surprise. Ugh, how could this one have survived?
At the last table there are only 5 samples. The ruminating and chewing is more serious now. The best two from this table will go to the senior judges. From my final table, one stands out as good and one is just better than the others, which, thankfully are pretty average now. Overall, most samples were pretty plain. I had about 5-6 really good ones. And maybe 5-6 really bad ones. The rest were just OK.
From here the final 18 samples go to the tables set up on a flat bed trailer not far away. The senior judges climb a wooden staircase, carefully, and get to work. They have the tastiest, if hardest job. Without the bad samples to set the good ones apart, how do they score them? Even so, some samples don’t require much tasting and are quickly spit out. There is a lot of experience at work here. Some of these judges have been doing this for more than 35 years.
Calculating the scores and then deciphering the numbered tickets into the winning teams takes a long time. A crowd gathered around the trailer waits anxiously. Finally the top 10 goat entries (as well as awards in showmanship, best rig, hospitality, ribs, mystery meat) are announced in descending order. The winners, Good Old Boys II from Ballinger, are knighted with an enormous trophy, and like that, my part is done.
The cooks, winning and not, will celebrate at their campsites into the night. I limp back to my hotel, where I will catch up on some football scores.