First I saw it: a low-lying cloud of gray smoke to the southeast, dimming the outlines of the Field Museum. Then, as I walked through the park, I smelled and heard it: the odor of hundreds of barbecue fires and the thrum of electric guitars and bluesy vocals. The event: Ribfest. My role: first-round judge.

Although I have never been a big fan of barbecue in general–too messy–and I have always thought that ribs in particular are a great deal more trouble than they are worth, a free meal is a free meal. So when the proprietors of the Tribune’s INC. column took Ribfest over from Mike Royko this year and put out the call for judges, I–and a few hundred other people, evidently–wrote them a letter and applied for a license to eat.

The big yellow tent where I was supposed to register was a mob scene when I arrived, and just as I was about to check in the crowd was stymied by a little guy with curly red hair and a full beard who strolled right to the front and announced that he wanted to be a judge, hammering home his points–“But wudja listen to me? I told you, I was a judge last year!”–with stabs of his Budweiser can. The registrar patiently explained that they didn’t need any more judges, that in fact they had considerably more judges than they required, with three or four on each of 72 teams. But this guy wasn’t going to be put off, and it was a good five minutes before they got him to stand aside so those of us who had applied ahead of time could check in.

The mob–I wondered if I’d wasted my time trying to write a witty application; it looked as though a simple, “I want to be a judge so I can eat free” would have sufficed–gathered on the embankment behind the registration tent, all eyeing the team numbers marked on each other’s aprons. I found myself partnered with Linda and Lynn. I figured Linda, a chunky, funky black woman whose hair was cropped short on the sides and long and punky on top, for a real city girl. But no; she lives and teaches near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Linda lost no time informing us that she is a Wisconsin State Champion rib cooker (she didn’t enter this contest because it takes her two weeks to prepare, and she lacked the time), and that she wrote a ten-page letter to be selected as a judge. “I believe in positive thinking,” she revealed. “I really wanted to be a judge, so I got to be one. I know more about how ribs are supposed to be cooked than just about anybody around.” Linda arrived at Ribfest later than she’d planned because she’d had to turn back home after driving 15 miles: she’d forgotten her dental floss.

Lynn, my other teammate, had straight dark hair and sunglasses and didn’t say much; when we first met, she was drinking sparkling wine from a plastic tulip glass. She did not have to write a letter at all to get in; she was part of a six-person coterie brought in by a local meat packer who was allowed to bestow a certain number of judgeships–a nice touch of authentic Chicagoana, I thought.

The judges’ meeting started late; a man who I assumed was Rick Kogan, Head Judge, gave us semi-intelligible instructions over a hand-held sound system. Judging would start at 2:30; each team was to judge its row of ten contestants and get the results back to the tent by 3:15–an announcement greeted with groans by most of the crowd, and with snorts of derision by Linda. “Judge all them ribs by 3:15? Forget it, man! No way we can really taste ten ribs in that amount of time.” We were told to select a team captain, whose job it would be to return the results. “That’s me, man,” said Linda, before discussion could begin. “I really know my ribs.”

Next came a brief appearance by our hostesses, Kathy O’Malley and Hanke Gratteau, who did not much resemble the photo that runs with their column. From their pronounced lack of girth I would be surprised to learn that they get into the beer ‘n’ BBQ very often. They look more like salad eaters to me.

Out among the rib cookers, our yellow judges’ aprons opened many doors; now I know how city inspectors must feel. We were offered flattery, free beer, ribs, even cash. I assumed the cash offer was facetious, but perhaps not: some of these people took the proceedings very seriously. No pedestrian Weber kettles for them, and no questions about their recipes, if you please. Contestant 549 informed us that he works for Rusty Jones; he’d made his cooker by welding together two drums that once contained rustproofing chemicals. This year he used 20-gallon drums; next year, he said, he’ll move up to 40 gallons.

Our first contestant went to some trouble to impress us: a smoked-glass kitchen table, wine, plates. Unfortunately, he was only expecting two judges, and Linda got stuck with a paper plate. But then Linda was interested in ribs, not ambience. The fellow confessed to using liquid smoke in his sauce, which cost him points on my scorecard. I consider the idea of chemical “smoke” revolting, not to mention unaesthetic, and I wouldn’t mind having a researcher run the stuff through a few white mice to check for possible carcinogens. Besides, it doesn’t taste that good.

Everyone was friendly, a little anxious, and very eager to please.

Every single person I met at the event lives either in the suburbs or in another state.

We chomped our way down our row of entrants, devouring a rib or two at each impromptu kitchen. We met the Gerbettes, whose resident chef had a plush gerbil in a clear plastic ball, which he repeatedly thrust under our noses. At another stand I deducted points, in the “overall” category, for the proprietor’s persistent offers to get naked for his all-female judging team.

Stand 536 offered something different: a touch of cinnamon. I liked it; so did my colleagues. I gave this stand my highest score: good, chewy ribs, thick tasty sauce, reasonable ambience, and nice folks. “This is just like a giant suburban backyard!” exclaimed the female half of the team, gesturing at the acres of dedicated barbecuers around us.

We reached our final stop quite late–Linda and Lynn both treated the deadline with the contempt of the true artiste for the rules of bureaucracies–and were locked into the jail cell of “Joliet Jake,” an ambience constructed expressly for our pleasure by our hosts, an amiable couple from Indiana and their friends, who enter every year with a different decorating motif. Wine was poured, ribs were served, photographs were taken, barbecue talk was traded. “You know that guy who won the first year, Robinson is his name?” asked Linda. “He’s making a fortune selling ribs here. But I tried ’em, and THEY-ARE-TERRIBLE!” It was generally agreed by those present that the world in which we live is devoid of justice.

We finally made it over to the judges’ tent, late but by no means the last; Linda turned over the cards, and we discovered that elements of the unintelligible part of the Head Judge’s speech were instructions to select our own winner first. We put our scores together; I was the easy grader in this crowd, with lots of sevens and eights, and a few nines. Lynn and Linda were much harsher. That’s probably one reason why my favorite, 536, was our team’s winner.

We said our farewells as Linda, in her capacity as team captain, hustled off with a plastic box to collect a specimen of our winning ribs for the second-round judges to enjoy back in the privacy of their tent. I wandered for a few moments, taking in a converted fire truck and other exotic cookers, and spotted the red-haired Man Who Would Be Judge, dressed in the official apron he coveted, huddled with three other judges and clutching a can of Coors. Bands were still banging away at the south end of the field, playing behind a peculiar object resembling a giant rolled-up Chicago Tribune. In front of the musicians, small children performed little piston-legged dances that generally wound up with a surprise drop to the dirt. Next to the stage a long line snaked out toward the northeast: Robinson’s #1 Rib was doing a land-office business.