Back in the Judges’ Tent
After our bacchanalian weekend of revelry and carnivorous indulgence in 1997, my husband and I returned to D.C. and strived to discover barbecue contenders worth our attention in the metro area besides our longtime favorite, Rocklands, in Glover Park.
Less than six months later, my doctor had some surprising and life-altering news for me. My cholesterol, remarkably, was still quite low. “I think you were born to be a barbecue judge,” she said. I also found out I was pregnant — with twins! As it turns out, their birthday lands every year on the same weekend as the National Capital Barbecue Battle, which made it impossible for me to continue judging our local contest as they were growing up. With the kids’ weekend activities dominating our schedule, getting to other locations to judge proved too logistically challenging. So despite the outstanding cholesterol stats, I reluctantly chose to take a 19-year sabbatical from judging.
In June 2017, however, just as I was about to launch my twins from the nest to college, I made a comeback at the National Capital Barbecue Battle and found that the number of talented pitmasters in our area has more than quadrupled since my early judging days. I, on the other hand, was a bit rusty. Douglas Halo, one of the organizers of this year’s competition, scolded me when he saw my sunglasses. “All judges must remove their sunglasses before judging because the teams want to see your eyes while you’re tasting their meat,” he said.
Since getting back onto the barbecue circuit, I’ve spent the past six months driving around Washington, D.C., northern Virginia and suburban Maryland trying to find the most exceptional barbecue in the area. Instead of focusing exclusively on the meat and sauce, as I did while working as an official barbecue judge, I’ve sampled as many side dishes as I could consume. Tough work, but somebody’s gotta do it.
The most shocking epiphany I had after months of devouring smoky pitmasters’ special platters and crispy Brussels sprouts was that even with all the intense competition in the region, my favorite in 1996 is still my favorite in 2018. Rocklands simply has no weaknesses. Founder John Snedden’s capable and creative competitors seem to have inspired him to up his game. The baby back ribs, Texas-style brisket, hot ’n’ spicy wings, grilled lamb and salmon are all phenomenal, and the only downside of the salads and side dishes is the need to choose among them. Grandma Snedden’s collard greens and the Texas corn pudding are my personal favorites, but you can’t go wrong with the old-fashioned mashed potatoes. I once asked a manager at Rocklands why he and his innovative staff don’t enter the National Capital Barbecue Battle or other nearby contests.
“Because we don’t have to,” he said.