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Judging barbecue at the American Royal: It's about survival

Exceeding the recommended daily intake of meat as a judge at the American Royal.



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"Dude, I am going to eat the shit out of this place," the kid tells his friends. "But how am I going to pick? It could be him or him." He gestures at the teams working under their tents, their lots marked by hay bales and Port-a-Potties.

I'm pretty sure he thinks my brother and I are on a date, so I don't interject to tell him that he won't be able to sample the competition barbecue unless a team offers him a taste. The only barbecue for sale is from food vendors, and it's generally not on a par with what's being cooked in the surrounding lots.

It's calmer tonight. The 154 teams in the invitational, which spent the previous night cooking, are exhausted from preparation for Sunday's open contest. And the other 400 teams are recuperating from Friday night's parties. Judges who show up Sunday morning with beer on their breath are barred from registering. I made a solemn vow to forgo alcohol and meat in the 24 hours before the contest. So, naturally, I'm drinking the world's coldest aluminum bottle of Budweiser as the temperature hovers around 40 degrees just five minutes after we step inside. My meat-abstinence pledge is broken shortly thereafter.

My brother and I head to the Burnt Finger BBQ tent, where one banner touts Bacon Explosion — the latticed bacon-and-sausage creation that has made team co-founder Jason Day famous — and the other has the team's mascot: a cartoon pig made of fingerprint-like whirls. Day and his wife, Megan (the team's unofficial public-relations coordinator), are with two other team members, all of them huddled in camping chairs around a patio heat lamp. KCBS founding member Paul Kirk holds court. I let on that I'll be judging in the morning.

"Judges," Kirk says, trailing off and shaking his head. He tells the story of the time that one of the worst briskets he ever cooked won the Jack Daniel's Invitational.

"The only thing worse than a Southern judge is a Yankee judge," Kirk jokes. I tell him I was born in Connecticut.

After a brief stop at the Ro Sham Bo tent, where the team is bundled up and watching Saturday Night Live with a pair of propane-powered heat lamps at their feet, we push on as the clock moves closer to midnight. College-football broadcasts go unwatched, and tent flaps are held closed by string as teams try to sneak in a bit of sleep before the overnight fire watch.

"What's that?" asks my brother, pointing to a circular steel smoker the size and shape of a yoga ball.

That is the Atom Bomb, and it's just one of the custom steel smokers built by Big Bro's Q. The handles are forged from horseshoes off a Texas ranch. Two generations of cooks from Texas and Abilene, Kansas, are pouring us a beer before we've even asked.

The team is still laughing about the local TV reporter who asked to get shots of their trophies in the frame. Those trophies are for women's golf and weightlifting, and their Goodwill price tags — 99 cents apiece — remain affixed. It's a good-natured dig at the championship banners and trophies that dot other teams' lots. And this team does like its good-natured digs. I'm on my second plate of ribs when I get a cold splash of reality to tone down the barbecue rub made with jalapeños.

"I didn't know a little guy could eat so much," says one of our hosts.

"Neither did I," I tell him.

I'm headed to the American Royal for the fourth straight day Sunday when I glance over at the sign in front of the First Baptist Church Westside on Avenida Cesar E Chavez. A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways, it reads.

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