Upon learning that salmon barbecue is a non-starter in Seattle, I was beginning to worry about Washington's low and slow scene. But having spent Saturday at the judges' table for the Pacific Northwest Barbecue Association's Winter Burn-Off in Snohomish, I'm inclined to think the state of regional barbecue is growing stronger.
Best as I could tell, the Burn-Off was arranged by a very talented pit master who was in the mood to win a contest: He and four other cook teams prepared chicken and pork ribs for a panel of judges headed by the inevitable winner's wife (To be fair, she didn't vote: He would have out-smoked the competition without her involvement.) I learned of the event while exploring the Pacific Northwest Barbecue Association's website; Since the unsanctioned contest didn't require official PNBWA credentials, my Memphis in May judging certification made me a viable volunteer.
Even when it takes place in the corner of a gourmet food shop, barbecue judging is an extraordinarily serious activity: Competitors invest thousands of dollars in their rigs and devote endless hours to perfecting their craft, so scores matter. Judges are barred from talking as they size up an entry's appearance, taste and texture.
Not surprisingly, considering two of the teams had never before competed, I encountered a few elementary mistakes in Snohomish: A few entries were inadequately trimmed; undercooked and over-sauced. Perhaps the biggest problem was the overriding sweetness of the sauces I sampled; According to the veteran judges who shared my table, the region has a reputation for sugary barbecue. Judges have historically given high scores to barbecue that has more sweet than heat, so competitors tend to choose rubs and sauces accordingly.
As much as I respect local traditions, I believe barbecue should taste primarily of meat and smoke. That's what I was trying to convey to a first-time competitor when I scribbled on a judges' comment card that her chicken had a strong Yuletide flavor, with hints of cranberries and baking spices. She later confronted me, clarifying that she hadn't added cranberries to her sauce. Next time I'll stick to "too sweet," when composing my comments.
But notwithstanding her misbegotten chicken (it turned out she'd sauced the bird before and after smoking it), the event left me optimistic. The overall quality of the meats was far higher than the equipment in Le Gourmet Depot's parking lot had led me to anticipate: Most of the cooks were working on puny smokers, and there was a Weber grill in the bunch. But more heartening still was the participation of so many new cooks. If Seattle is to forge its own barbecue style - whether or not it involves salmon - enthusiastic eaters and cooks are a prerequisite.