A little later in the day, you start hearing times shouted throughout the park -- “Ten minutes!” “Four minutes! “One minute!” -- letting the cooks know how long they have before they must send in their blind box for judging. They cut it close intentionally; the less time the meat spends getting cold, the better, even though unlike restaurant meat, competition meat is always prepared in anticipation of it sitting around and getting cold.
Soon the makeshift avenues are thronged with teammates hustling towards the big tent, one acting as fullback, the other carrying the styrofoam box (or a high-tech warming case that carries the box within it).
Still later, the process reverses, as countless judges make their way towards the teams. When a judge arrives for an on-site, they’re treated like a foreign dignitary, complete with a wildly cheering greeting committee outside and, inside, a solicitous presentation by the cooks. From underneath Team Canada’s open canopy, you can hear them go through a detailed story of whole hog process and flavor, discussing the thermodynamics of their smoker like engineers. After the ham, shoulder, and loin are served, one cook -- a handsome, bald, pirate-looking fellow -- tells the judge something to the effect of, “Now there’s nothing that says we can’t thrill you with other stuff!” Then out come the jowls, and that bacon. The judge, a stout man with a jutting white beard, remains as respectful as you can be when you’re eating while someone else is talking.
The teams go through this three times, with three separate judges. After that, there’s a lull as the top three finalists in each category are determined. Then something wonderful to behold: if you make the finals, a golf cart will pull up to your camp and a volunteer will present you with a care package (ruby red vodka, whiskey, and two insulated tumblers) while your team goes bananas. Only the cart’s driver knows which team area he’s stopping at; the volunteer is kept in the dark. Nobody seems to know why.
While the finalists start preparing for yet another on-site presentation (this one to four judges at once), volunteers let the other teams know whether or not they made the top 10 and therefore get to step onto the awards stage to collect a trophy and enough money to at least partially offset a very expensive weekend. Many of the judges also circle back around to give teams advice on what they could improve on. At the end of the day, everybody wants everybody to do well.
At this point, things get really fun, and really quirky, though in a much more relaxed way than Thursday and Friday nights. Those who didn’t make the finals kick back and commingle with other teams, trading ribs, plans, and stories. Non-victorious hog heads start popping up on posts all over the park. Bizarre traditions are started -- a few years ago, one team invented a game where the loser had to crawl into the stand-up cooler and take a shot. Again, nobody seems to know why.