Michael Cameron's voice perked up, like it just had been splashed with hot pepper sauce.
"What you learn is that it's not just food," said Cameron, his mouth seemingly beginning to water. "It's almost an art."
Ask Cameron about being a judge at Saturday's Plant City Pig Jam, and the excitement rises with each word. He explains with a tone of gleeful anticipation that it's a mistake to confuse the grillmasters coming to the annual event with weekend hacks who drink a few beers and try to cook up a rack of ribs for the neighbors.
No, these Rembrandts, Picassos and DaVincis — they will travel from as far as California, Iowa and South Dakota — make a living competing in such contests. With some 80 teams competing for a total purse of more than $15,000 up for grabs, they will stop at nothing in trying to craft culinary masterpieces.
"It's different than what you get in the restaurants," Cameron said. "Many times, there are different layers of flavors. They might put dry rub on the meat, then cook it, then wrap it in an apple juice mix, then coat it with honey.
"It's an artistic presentation using food."
Cameron, president of Cameron Financial Management in Plant City, knows better than most. He has overseeing the judging for the 10th consecutive year and like the event, he's certified by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. Many of the contestants are vying for the top spot in the Sam's Club KCBS Team of the Year standings.
If that sounds serious, you're beginning to grasp the magnitude of the competition and the learned skill of judging grilled meats.
Just consider the judge's oath.
I do solemnly swear to objectively and subjectively evaluate each Barbeque meat that is presented to my eyes, my nose, my hands and my palate. I accept my duty to be an Official KCBS Certified Judge, so that truth, justice, excellence in Barbeque and the American Way of Life may be strengthened and preserved forever.
And you saw the Pig Jam as just another cookout. Shame on you.
According to KCBS officials, the oath comes from one Ardie Davis, a.k.a Remus Powers, Ph.B., one of the society's founding members. Davis also founded the "Diddy Wa Diddy" Barbecue Sauce Contest in his back yard in the late '70s or early '80s.
Just as the society has gone from Remus' back yard to mega competitions, so too has the judging. Each judge attends a school to learn about taste, texture and appearance. They use saltines and green grapes to cleanse their palates and drink only water between bites — no soda or beer.
And judges can't lick their fingers, please. They must use paper towels, unscented wipes or wet cloths.
The requirements may be stringent, but Cameron insists the dietary joy is unequaled.
"I will tell you I never, ever had good brisket in my life until I started judging," Cameron said. "A lot of people do good ribs, good pork, but for me, the barbecue contest is my opportunity to try some of the best brisket in the world."
Of course, the best thing about sampling these creative works is that instead of hanging them on a wall in a museum, you can use them to do some interior decorating in your belly.
Isn't that the best kind of art?
That's all I'm saying.