FRIONA — There’s a certain air of smugness that comes with walking self-righteously through a door marked “Cheeseburger Judges Only.”
Yeah, I’m a big shot, what about it?
This was an important task that only four of us could uphold Saturday in the refurbished Santa Fe Depot that sits in the middle of Friona’s city park. Milling all around us was the official start of the 12th annual Cheeseburger Festival, where as many as 3,000 would visit booths, bet on cow patty bingo to fund a new ambulance for the city, and chow down on cheeseburgers.
Ah, yes, cheeseburgers — it only makes sense. When in the Napa Valley, a visitor goes to a wine tasting. In Parmer County, it’s a cheeseburger.
There’s 40 cattle operations within 50 miles of Friona, including Cargill Meat Solutions just west of town that has 2 million cattle annually. There’s also 15 dairies, and within 100 miles, there’s two cheese processing plants.
In Parmer County, there’s 140,000 acres of wheat.
So that takes care of the meat, cheese and buns. As for the condiments…
“Best Made Pickles grow their cucumbers in Plainview,” said Chris Alexander, executive director of the Friona Chamber of Commerce.
Finding those to consume the cheeseburgers, well, that’s the easiest of all. When this began in 2006, it drew nearly 300. Now it’s swelled to about 10 times that. Finding four judges for the World’s Best Cheeseburger — no one is calling it that but me — shouldn’t be too hard either.
Nine cooking teams — charged with cooking at least 200 burgers apiece — lined the edge of the city park to grill their special cheeseburgers Saturday morning that would soon go to a hungry public. But first they had to pass the discerning taste buds of four judges.
Scott Hayward, a friend, fell into this judging gig about four years ago. He asked last week if I would loan my stomach to the cause. After thinking it over for 1.27 seconds, I said that I would sacrifice.
We left Amarillo in style, riding in Scott’s 1976 VW Bus, one of five VWs that hummed along at 50 mph and only had to stop twice in the 75 miles to let one of the bugs refill with oil.
Finally, and thankfully in Friona, we were joined by Lauren Heidenbach from Congressman Jodey Arrington’s Lubbock office, and Tom Martin, a city commissioner from Clovis, N.M. We were secluded from the prying eyes of the local peasants inside the air-conditioned depot.
We each sat at four card tables with a bottle of water and grapes to cleanse the palette. Beginning at 11 a.m., the first of nine cheeseburgers was brought in at five-minute intervals. It was paraded around us by Jayn Looper. She and Susie Spring would cut the cheeseburger into quarters, but not before Susie would describe it in mouth-watering terms:
“It has similar characteristics of a jalapeno popper where the subtle flavor of cream cheese offers a cooling touch to the spice of jalapeno,” she said of one.
Then they were cut in quarters. Lauren, being a classy woman, just ate one bite. Scott and myself, being stupid competitive males, ate the entire thing.
We had to score each cheeseburger on appearance, originality and, of course, taste. Surprisingly, nothing on congeniality. We did not know the names of the cooking teams, only contestants 1 through 9.
That led to a conversation with Tom on his cellphone to his wife: “She asked me if the contest had started, and I said, ‘Yes, I’m in the middle of No. 2.’”
There were cheeseburgers with lemon pepper, ones with brown sugar, cream cheese, taco flavoring, pineapple, sea salt, marinated in Dr Pepper, and one, from a group of Friona coaches, that was kind of a grilled cheese sandwich inside a cheeseburger.
We took the assignment with the gravity of a juror deciding a capital murder case. We grimly nodded, we talked, and threw out words like “zesty,” “overpowering,” or my descriptive contribution to the cause — “good.”
I didn’t know if Scott could make a decision, because he’s a little like Will Rogers in that he never met a plate of anything he didn’t like. But after consuming 2¼ cheeseburgers, and tallying up our private scores, we had our winner.
Cargill — with its bacon, jalapeno, cream cheese and chipotle masterpiece. They gave the $1,000 first prize money back to the city’s ambulance fund.
“I invented this burger about three or four months ago,” said Lalo Hermosilla, a Texas Tech junior from El Paso and intern with Cargill.
“It’s something different. There’s more flavor that people aren’t used to.
“It’s not your typical burger because the taste buds taste so many different flavors.”
After 2¼ cheeseburgers, and my sides expanding, I did the only thing a self-respecting Texan would do after an hour of judging — bought a cup of homemade Butterfinger ice cream. There has to be some dairy in there somewhere.
Jon Mark Beilue is an AGN Media columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com or 806-345-3318. Twitter: @jonmarkbeilue.