Local barbecue judges J.A. Bucy and Chris Harmon know their way around a hog.
According to Nashvillian J.A. Bucy, a good barbecue sandwich starts with one thing: a cheap, white bread bun from a plastic bag. Next comes the meat, which Bucy, who is a Kansas City Barbecue Society certified judge, says usually starts out as a pork shoulder thrown on the smoker. Top that off with some coleslaw and a hot-and-spicy vinegar-based sauce, and voila. You’ve got yourself the perfect pulled pork sandwich.
Bucy has been judging barbecue competitions since 2013, and it's what barbecue means to those eating it that's kept him going. “Barbecuing means a lot of things: a meat, an act, an event. But on some level, it’s about the sociology of eating and being around family and being communal," he says. "That’s what’s important to me — the community of it."
Bucy was invited to take a judging class with friend and fellow KCBS judge Chris Harmon, who served as District 26 Metro Councilmember 2011-2015.
"I remember growing up, just about every year around the Fourth of July, my grandfather would get together with a buddy to cook a whole hog on the fire," Harmon says. "They’d go through Friday night and on Saturday around lunch, we’d have pork to eat. He’d invite the county road crew to come out and have barbecue with us, or sometimes we’d package it up and bring it down to them. That is one of my happiest memories surrounding barbecue and probably where my love of it comes from.”
Harmon says he recruited a few other friends, including Bucy, a governmental affairs consultant, and they all drove down to Decatur, Alabama, for the eight-hour class. Since then, they have judged some of the best briskets, ribs, pork butts and chickens the United States has to offer.
In most cases, you have to apply to judge, and with a large amount of competition, there's no guarantee of participation. "You might have to drive two or three hours or longer to participate, and it’s voluntary," Bucy says. "The only compensation is the food, but it’s wonderful."
In the KCBS, judging is done with a double-blind method, meaning neither sides know which chef is behind the barbecue on the platter, or in this case, the nondescript Styrofoam box.
"The KCBS doesn’t teach you as much about how to taste as they do how to properly score the meat. They trust your palate — they want you to understand when something is undercooked or overcooked and then how to properly score if someone had left a toothpick or tin foil," Bucy says.
The judging criteria is based on three things: The appearance of the barbecue, its taste and its tenderness. And that fall-off-the-bone tenderness that everybody seems to love? Harmon explained that in competition, that will get some points knocked off.
“We don’t like to see that in competition because when the meat is falling off, it’s overdone. That’s probably something that’s misunderstood, because you want to be able to take a bite and pull just that bite away,” he says. “And when you’re looking for good barbecue outside of competition, those judging criteria still apply. You want to eat barbecue that looks good, that has a hint of the smoke, a hint of the sauce, and you want to be able to understand what the chef is trying to communicate through their barbecue.”
Sure, there's no compensation for judging, but Harmon says the payoff comes in other ways.
“You would think it would be the eating, right? Having mountains of barbecue brought to you, but the thing I like the most is seeing how different people prepare smoked meats,” he says. Some use a spicy sauce, some want it sweet. "You can taste a difference in the woods they use to smoke the meats. I just love the variety we get to see when we’re judging."
Bucy's favorite part isn’t the food or the preparation; it's still the meaning behind it all. “The South has been traditionally poorer. That is our roots," Bucy says. "In pulled pork and shoulders and the brisket, you’re seeing those cheaper cuts becoming dinner. It’s very much part of our culture as workers and agrarians in the South where we had to have food that was not expensive. It very much speaks to us as a history of all communities across the South.
“Eating economically was important. It’s a fantastic, classic peasant food made beautifully and made into something wonderful. And it’s cool because it’s giving backyard chefs some notoriety.” As for getting good barbecue locally, Harmon and Bucy spread the love around the state and say go all over. And another tip? Don’t try just one meat. “My tip to anyone going to a barbecue restaurant is always to try more than one meat. Pulled pork is good anywhere, and if a place is doing brisket right, it will melt in your mouth,” Bucy says.