An easy 90-minute drive from Nashville, Tennessee, is Lynchburg: a charming, postcard-perfect town of about 6,000 residents. In addition to being the home of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey, last weekend it hosted the 26th annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue.
An all-day affair involving 25,000 fans, almost 100 national and international competing teams, and vendors galore, it’s also one of the world’s most prestigious barbecue competitions. Why? Because it’s invite only. While others like the American Royal might draw more fans (and fanfare), this is the event that pulls in only the most serious smokers. As one judge from the Kansas City Barbecue Society put it, “This is like the World Cup of barbecue. You have to be a champion to even get invited.” Scott Townsend of one of the competing teams, Smoke'N Babes BBQ from Olathe, Kansas, agreed: “It’s a blast. There’s so much going on, to see and do. It’s unlike any other competition.”
Entries were judged on three categories: appearance, taste, and tenderness. When it comes to taste, certified competition judge Brian Oliver of Wired Barbeque, a website dedicated to preaching and promoting all things que-related, says the key is balance. You’ll want equals parts sweet, salty, and bitter in each bite. For appearance, pay close attention to size and color. Especially with the chicken category, portions should “look the same, and be of uniform size.” All entries, regardless of what kind of meat, should have no spots and a smooth, even sauce coat. Ribs, in particular, should sport a “nice mahogany color, and a shiny glaze that’s not too dry or sloppy.” While fall-off-the-bone may be the coveted standard in many of today’s kitchens and restaurants, in competition it’s a big no-no. “When you bit into a comp (aka competition) rib, you should be able to see your teeth marks,” says Oliver. “And the bone should actually dry within seconds after pulling away.” When it comes to judging tenderness or pork, however, the rules are a little different. “The meat shouldn’t crumble or fall apart – this means it’s overdone – and there should be a slight resistance with each bite.”
Competition samples were strictly reserved for judging, so thankfully there were plenty of vendors on-site turning out quality que. For example, Nashville’s famed House of Hickory – they competed in 18 of the past 26 Jack Daniel’s competitions – was one of the most popular stands, delivering their prize-winning ribs directly to the fans.
While even the most dedicated smoker will hem and haw over technique, few will bicker over equipment. Meaning, if you’re serious about smoking, invest in a good smoker. House of Hickory co-owner Lee McWright’s weapon of choice is from American Barbecue Systems. “It’s a quality product that uses all stainless steel. Besides, it’s a great family operation. They take care of every member of their team.”
And since I was just returned from the hip and ever-evolving city of Nashville, wouldn’t it be polite of me to whip up a quick cheat sheet on where to stay, play, and eat right this very minute? It would be. So here you go.
Stay: Sheraton Nashville Downtown Hotel An extensive, top-to-bottom $25 million renovation gave this hotel the chic, modern update it needed (and deserved). To make the most of your stay, invest a little more in a Club Room (pictured). Not only will you be rewarded with a top-floor airy and cheery nook, you’ll have complimentary access to the Club Lounge, where breakfast and afternoon wine and snacks are served. The convenient downtown location means you’ll be stumbling distance to and from Nashville hot spots like Robert's Western World and Tootsies World Famous Orchid Lounge.
Eat: Husk After flipping through Chef Sean Brock’s highly-anticipated and just-released cookbook, “Heritage,” it’s easy to see why Husk – there’s a sister location in Charleston – is adored by locals, writers, and critics alike. Brock is dedicated to helping the country reimagine Southern cuisine (because there’s so much more to it than fried chicken and greens). By preserving the past through embracing long-forgotten ingredients, cooking techniques, and even dishes, Brock is blazing the trail for a new, and more refined form of Southern cuisine.
Play: Pinewood Social This is latest, buzzy opening from local hospitality impresarios and brothers Benjamin and Max Goldberg (whom also opened local favorites Merchants and The Catbird Seat). It was their vision to create a large, versatile space where everyone can meet and have fun, morning through night. There’s vintage bowling alleys. Bocce ball courts. Swimming pools. Free wireless. Karaoke. In case you happen to work up an appetite while letting loose, the kitchen – it’s headed up by Chef Josh Habiger, formerly of The Catbird Seat – turns out fun spins on American comforts like crackly pork rinds and crispy fried chicken.
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