It is BBQ season again, bless the Lord. About ten years ago, I got invited to my first competition BBQ contest by my friend, Arlie Bragg. I had never heard of a BBQ contest but I liked BBQ so I went. There were all these people of every age and size wearing little silver name tags. They all seemed to know each other. When we sat down to judge, a nice man explained the rules. Rules? Yes, rules.

After the rule explaining, the eating commenced. Everything I tasted was utterly fantastic – chicken, ribs, pork butt and brisket. I ate liberally. When would I ever get to have this again? Who were these people and how often did they come to Nashville? That afternoon, I probably ate two and a half pounds of meat. I was on protein overload and didn’t touch anything but vegetables for the next three weeks.

Well, I figured out who all those people were with the silver name tags. They were members of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which now sanctions contests from coast to coast. I joined. I got certified as a judge and got my own silver name tag. I progressed to becoming a master judge, of which I’m quite proud. I learned that it is a “tasting” contest not an “eating” contest. I consume more moderate amounts now.

The boxes are things of beauty. Just look at this brisket? Isn’t it sumptuous? Can you see why I just salivate at the beginning of BBQ season? Judging is serious business because competing is serious business and you give the cooks respect by carefully considering each entry. Some judges are called “super judges” because they get a little too serious and nitpick at every little thing. And I’ll say it here: The best reason to judge a competition contest is that you will never eat better. I am a little piggy and I’m not afraid to admit it.

Now, the part about that first contest and everybody seeming to know each other. Well, that’s because they did. As in many social organizations, the members become friends. That’s how I hooked up with my boyfriend, Terrell (who turned 75 the other day – Happy Birthday, boyfriend!). I count many of my BBQ buddies as close friends, including my Chicks in Charge teammates Linda and Roxanne Gould and Mary Ann Francis.

And that friendship brings me to Mama Dean. Her real name was Ada, but everyone called her Mama Dean. She was married to Tony Stone, an icon in the BBQ community who has been both president of KCBS and a contest organizer and cook. Mama Dean loved everybody. You hear that about a lot of people, particularly in the South. But Mama Dean really did love everybody. Hugs were mandatory. Good cheer was required. Loving concern was spread around liberally. She and Tony hosted a big party in their home before the start of his contest in Cookeville in September. I could never go because of work. Now I regret that.

Mama Dean passed on Saturday. We all are heartbroken for Tony and his family. Her funeral was today and I’ll bet it was the best damn attended funeral in the state of Tennessee. Had Mama Dean been there, she would have been presiding over the funeral food for which all Southern women are legendary.

My first contest of the year is this Saturday in Winchester, Tennessee. Mama Dean had hoped to be there, Linda tells me. We would have done this year what we’ve done every year for as long as I can remember. Mama Dean sitting outside the judging area, visiting with old friends and making new ones. She never knew a stranger. I’ll miss her.

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