By Larry W. Greenly
It’s like a gathering of wildebeest arriving for their annual migration, pawing the ground and excited about the experience that lies ahead. On the first Monday of October, 50 Scovie Award judges converge upon the County Line BBQ, a barbecue restaurant in the shadow of the Sandia Mountains on the edge of Albuquerque. Some are old-timers. Some are newbies. All love the heat of capsaicin.
By 10 a.m., the parking lot is full, the tasting room is packed and a half-dozen tables are surrounded by excited foodies. The Scovie judges, who are chefs, restaurant owners, food critics and other culinary whizzes, are handing out business cards to each other and making small talk. Standing near each table is an assistant who will announce each category and pass around samples of this year’s entries.
“I’d like to have your attention,” announces Dave DeWitt, the organizer and originator of this annual pilgrimage of souls seeking capsaicin enlightenment. “You have score sheets upon which you’ll grade each entry on appearance, flavor, uniqueness and several other attributes. Then we’ll tally up the scores afterwards and determine the winners.” He cautions us not to discuss any product while judging. “And don’t make any faces,” he warns.
With that, the action begins. Table-assistants check that their judges have all the accoutrements for tasting and the necessary gastronomic salves-milk, flour tortillas, soft drinks and water-to quench any tongue fires that may get out of control.
So many entries in so many categories arrive each year, not every table can taste the same products. If a table is “lucky,” it might taste a number of habanero-laced foods; but if it’s luckier, it might get to taste some chocolate goodies.
The first product code number is announced. The judges dutifully note it on their score sheets. The unnamed, coded product makes it way around the table, and each judge places a sample on a plastic plate. The newbies watch the oldtimers perform their ritual: examine the product, smell it, taste it, score it, write any comments. Pretty soon everyone is in a similar rhythm. Life is good.
Now it’s barbecue sauces. First, the judges taste the sauce alone and then on a bit of toothpick-speared sausage or chicken. Used toothpicks and plates pile up, but are periodically whisked away. Whoa! A heightened sense of the universe (and everything else) suddenly appears in sharp focus. And-ah-is the room getting warmer? Mr. Reality says it’s the accumulative effect of endorphins from the relentless capsaicin. The first order for milk goes out, followed by a cascade of requests for water and soft-drinks.
A blizzard of salsas makes it way around the table. Then some dry rubs. Next, it’s habanero-laced sauces obviously containing time-release-but, hopefully, food-grade-napalm. Are the sauces laughing? Beads of sweat appear on the foreheads of judges. Fortunately, tiny cups of euphemistically named palate cleansers-actually antidotal sherbets-magically appear. They are quickly devoured.
After two hours of fiery nibbling and scoring countless categories, the morning session comes to a warm close. Pizzas and salads appear. Diehards staying for the afternoon session grab a slice or two, chat with acquaintances and wander around outside, taking in the scenery.
Soon, a second rush of vehicles appears–it’s the afternoon contingent joining the fun. It’s déjà vu all over again: examine, smell, taste, score, don’t make a face, yada, yada, yada. The next two hours fly by. Finally, the last product is tasted and hardly anyone has made a face. The fat lady has sung, and it’s over.
The capsaicin-buzzed judges pick up their gift bags and wobble their way to the parking lot, chanting “Scovie, Scovie.” Life is good.