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If you see Jeff Neal pigging out on barbecue, don't judge him.
He's only doing his job.
Neal, a charge nurse on the pediatric specialty hall at the University of Mississippi Medical Center's Grants Ferry clinic, takes to the road on weekends as a certified judge for the Memphis Barbecue Network. Since 2009, he's been sampling the categories of whole hog, pork shoulder and pork ribs on a regional circuit that takes him through Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Alabama.
“I got interested because my uncle started doing it and said how good the barbecue was,” said Neal, a Brandon resident. “I wanted to see for myself.”
After undergoing approved training by the Memphis Barbecue Network, Neal is earning his keep on the circuit. “I've probably done 45 or 50 contests,” Neal said. “It's pretty much year round, but we slow down during the summer. The heat of the cookers, plus it being outside, is not ideal weather.”
Ribs are bound to be good if it's cooked by Neal.
His favorite pork to judge: whole hog.
His favorite pork to eat: whole hog.
“You get to taste all of the meat of the pig - the shoulder, the ham, the loin and especially the bacon,” Neal said.” The bacon off a whole hog is the best bacon you've ever had.”
The Memphis Barbecue Network posts judging opportunities on its website, and judges sign up, Neal said. “In the judging, you have preliminaries and then the finals, and you have to be picked to judge in the finals. I've done that quite often.”
The amount of barbecue samples a judge eats over the duration of a contest varies according to the number of entrants, Neal said, so he has to go into it hungry.
“You try to eat a light breakfast because the finals usually start at 1 or 2,” he said. “When you are judging finals, you have to eat nine different samples, and some teams can actually go to the finals in all three categories. I've almost gotten sick from eating so much. When it's hot outside, over 100 degrees, it really gets to you, but you have to get through it.”
As he makes the rounds at a competition, Neal gets pretty sauced up, depending on how the cookers use it.
“It could be served on the pork or off,” Neal said. “Most teams like their rib and shoulder to have sauce on it. On whole hog, they'll put the sauce on the plate in front of you, and you taste it with the sauce and without. Most teams have their own recipe for rubs and sauces and for injections.”
Sauce can make or break the hog, Neal said. “They will cook the hog with certain woods and give it a specific flavor. If you add a sauce to it, it might not taste good. But in some cases, the sauces actually help it taste better.”
He's a judge, Neal said, “strictly for the love of barbecue. We don't get paid anything to do it. I get to see a lot of friends, and we have a good time.”
But just once, Neal put the shoe on the other foot. Last year during the barbecue competition at Memphis in May, “I was actually with a team, and that was real fun. I helped cook ancillary foods, like seafood and chicken.”
The Diamond D cooking team didn't win, but that's not a reflection on Neal's own excellent barbecue skills. “I do cooking on the side and sell it to people: turkeys at Thanksgiving, pulled pork, and a special thing called Moink Balls. It's meatballs wrapped in bacon, smoked and covered with barbecue sauce.”
You won't find any of his dishes becoming the disaster he saw at one memorable competition.
“It was a first-time team. They tried to cook a whole hog, and it was pretty much jerky. They'd never been on a contest circuit,” Neal said. “It was not up to our standards.
“I haven't seen them since.”
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