Dennis Polson is a pleasant, genial man in a cowboy hat, tasselled boots and a turquoise neckerchief, who doesn’t mind smiling on occasion but who is dead serious about his barbecue. He’s the sort of kindly stickler given to the phrase “the rules are the rules.”
The 73-year-old Lebo native — whose duties as a Kansas City Barbeque Society representative have taken him to 11 states already this year — was in Iola over the weekend to oversee Iola Rotary’s annual KCBS-sanctioned barbecue competition at the Allen County Fair.
The 34 judges gathered at four tables in the New Community Building in Riverside Park. A “Do Not Enter” sign was plastered across the building’s front door. It’s a serious undertaking, judging barbecue. A reverent, hushed mood pervaded the room where the judges considered their particular meats. At one point, a young man — a fair worker, in fact — tried to gain entry into the building.
“You can’t come in here,” said Polson. “I’m sorry.”
“I just need to get to the office back there,” said the young man.
“We’re in a judging right now, son,” said Polson, closing the door on the man’s befuddled face.
That was during the chicken portion of the competition. During pork butt, an elderly man opened the front door and let a big gush of wind blow through the entryway. Another KCBS volunteer rushed to the scene. “You can’t come in here, sir,” the volunteer said.
“I’m looking for Frances,” the man said.
“No one is named Frances,” the volunteer said.
The man seemed not to hear. “Is Frances in there?” he asked, looking over the volunteer’s head.
“No,” the volunteer said, “no Frances.” The volunteer shut the door and the congregation returned to its solemn assignment of evaluating smoked meats — a tableau of highly-trained eaters turning rib bones over in their hands with the lavish attention of jewelry appraisers.
THE KANSAS CITY Barbeque Society is in its 32nd year and is the largest national cookout organization of its kind. According to Polson, the group hosts more than 500 contests per year and has a presence in nearly every state and is even gaining a reputation overseas.
Whether a particular KCBS contest is held in Lubbock or whether it’s held in Liverpool, the rules remain the same. Every barbecue team is required to cook four meats: chicken, ribs, pork and beef brisket.
Australia, for instance, explained Polson, wanted to smoke lamb. Not happening. Norway wanted to cook fish. Nope. “If you want to play our game, you use our rules.”
“Now, if you want to cook lamb as an ancillary or extra contest,” said Polson, “that’s fine. But you must first cook our four.”
Each team is allowed their choice of marinades, rubs and spices, however, and can choose the type of wood used for smoking. “You go farther south, you’re getting more into pecan trees. Up here, we use more of the other fruit trees. In Texas, they like mesquite.”
On the day of the competition, during a designated 10-minute window, each team hands their meat product — transported in standard-issue polystyrene clamshells — to a KCBS volunteer, who sees that the clamshell is labelled via an intricate double-blind numbering system that ensures the temporary anonymity of the teams. From there, the clamshells are dispatched to the judges’ tables, where their contents are set upon by thousands of qualified tastebuds.
The meats are evaluated on three KCBS-specified criteria, which also happen to be decent criteria for selecting a romantic partner: pleasing appearance, good taste and sufficient tenderness. “Looks, taste and tenderness,” said Polson, “that’s the name of the game.”
“With around 25 teams, this contest is considered a small contest,” explained Linda Polson, Dennis’s wife and — as the one in charge of inputting the scores — a crucial partner in administering the KCBS contests. “Still, though, there are 10 of the best teams in the country right here in Iola.”
Dennis agreed. “It’s going to be a tough ‘who wins this darn thing?’ contest, I’ll tell you that.”
BARBECUE has always been a big deal. Writing from the International Barbecue Cooking Competition in Memphis in 1985 — the birth year of KCBS, as it happens — the New Yorker correspondent and Kansas City native Calvin Trillin clapped eyes for the first time on that species of human for whom barbecue is life: “There are so many barbecue-cooking contests that in the summertime a competitive barbecuer can haul his rig from fairgrounds to fairgrounds, like a man with a string of quarter horses.”
And that was about the cut of it on Saturday in Riverside Park, too. Expensive-looking smokers and trailer rigs dotted the greens. Typically, the team name is stenciled somewhere on the rig: Spicy Spitfire, Smokin’ Dan, Smooth Smoke, Pork Pullers, Pig Newton, Fire & Spice, Caveman Cuisine, 4 Legs Up, and an Olathe-based team called Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Rub. Plus 19 others.
Who are these people who’ve transformed a happy backyard pursuit into a form of obsession? I asked Polson.
Barbecue is an entirely democratic endeavor, said the barbecue rep. “Take Dave Qualls, for example, who is part owner of a casino down in Oklahoma. He just loves to cook. We have doctors and lawyers but we also have the redneck from right up the road. When it comes to barbecue, they’re all putting their pants on the same way. And it’s the same with judges.”
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