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For Ph.B, it's about more than just taste

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Tana Shupe never ate barbecue when she was growing up in Nashville, but she's eating plenty of it now.

The Tullahoma, Tenn., resident is a barbecue connoisseur.

For nearly 20 years, Shupe, 63, has traveled the world, tasting and sometimes judging the best barbecue out there.

She goes to about 20 barbecue competitions a year, primarily in the Southeastern United States, but also abroad.

"I've taken teams to Switzerland, Ireland, Jamaica and Canada," she said.

The sister of Susan McClary of Pawleys Island, Shupe is a certified master barbecue judge and a member of the board of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, a national nonprofit dedicated to promoting and enjoying barbecue.

Internationally, barbecue is gaining in popularity, and that's something the society is trying to aid.

"It's really new in a lot of countries," said Shupe, whose duties with the society brought her to Myrtle Beach last weekend for the Smoke on the Beach competition. "And because America is seen as barbecue central, they want to see how we do it."

Part of the society's mission is to have barbecue recognized as "America's cuisine," so the society is more than happy to help with demonstrations.

People overseas "don't do the low and slow cooking like we do over here," Shupe said.

That entails cooking the meat over low heat overnight.

"They do it hot and fast," she added.

But that doesn't mean it’s any less delicious.

"They use lots of people who are professional chefs, and they do some amazing things," Shupe said. "A lot of it there is about presentation."

Instead of having judges sample on site, tasting only the barbecue, overseas contests often have the cook prepare a plate with a barbecued meat and a vegetable side dish, which is also taken into account.

Barbecuing lamb and fish is also more common overseas than in America, where preferences run to pulled pork, ribs and chicken.

Shupe stumbled in to the competitive barbecuing world during her 26-year career with Jack Daniels Distillery. The company hosts an invitational barbecue competition every year and when the organizer stepped down, Shupe was asked to take over.

It sounded like fun, so she agreed, but quickly learned there was more to it than she expected.

To get a better grasp, she starting training to become a barbecue judge.

After judging the minimum 30 contests required over a period of five years, she got certified as a master judge, then about six years ago she got her Ph.B.

For the uninitiated, that's the highest level of achievement for a barbecue judge. To get those letters behind her name, Shupe had to write an essay about her accomplishments in the barbecue world and answer a series of questions in front of a panel of barbecue experts. "That and $2 will buy me a Coke pretty much anywhere in the world," Shupe said.

But people, including McClary, get a kick out of it when Shupe shows them her laminated credentials, attached to a cord she wears around her neck when attending barbecue cooking contests. It's usually worn along with her lucky pig, a swine-shaped pendant she wears on a silver chain.

These days, Shupe's duties with the society keep her busy enough that she doesn't do much judging, but she still likes to judge the occasional contest to keep her taste buds trained, along with all the other senses she uses in judging.

Evaluating barbecue is a lot more complex than people tend to think, she said. Though whether it tastes good is a major factor, there's more to be considered, including tenderness and appearance.

"You hear restaurants advertise that their barbecue is so good it falls off the bone," Shupe said. "Actually, that wouldn't be a good competition rib. A perfectly-cooked competition rib will pull off the bone easily, but when you take a bite, it should adhere to the bone for a second."

Even the bone itself is taken into consideration when judging barbecued ribs. That should be dry and "a beautiful gray" in appearance. There are similar rules for other types of barbecue.

Whatever kind of meat is being considered, judges first want to make sure it's neither over- nor under-cooked. And how much sauce or glaze is used is also a factor. A cook can get away with not using sauce, but if they use too much, they'll be disqualified.

The rules of competition are very strict and no leeway is given. At society-sanctioned competitions, barbecue officials even take an oath, swearing to objectively evaluate each meat presented with their eyes, noses, hands and palates.

"The judges take it very seriously," Shupe said.

A certain amount of creativity is appreciated in barbecue competition, but contestants usually keep their creations within certain bounds.

"There's no such thing as standard, but they know they're cooking for the judges, so they can't go too off the wall or people aren’t going to like it," Shupe said. "They can't make it too hot or too smoky."

The winners of big barbecue competitions often go home with hefty prizes. They can be in the range of $20,000 to $50,000, though Shupe said she's seen a few contests with grand prizes reaching $100,000.

Not surprisingly, that kind of cash attracts a lot of very talented people.

While it might seem tempting to have more than just a taste of everything, judges quickly learn that's a bad idea.

At one competition she judged, Shupe said she tasted more than 50 different products, drinking water and eating crackers in between each to cleanse the palate. With quantities like that, sometimes even a taste is too much.

By the end of one competition where she had a lot of dishes to try, she said she started discreetly spitting each sample out after tasting it.

Even as much as she’s around it, Shupe said she never gets sick of barbecue. In fact, in the winter months — the off-season for barbecue competitions — she goes into "barbecue withdrawal."

But it's not always easy to get a fix.

Having tasted the best of the best in barbecue, she said she's very picky and finding a good barbecue restaurant has become a lot more challenging.

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