All-American Barbeque

I’ve judged food several times.

I’ve judged ribs, hamburgers – including beef, chicken, and sirloin and pork burgers – holiday recipes from soups to desserts. Friday was either my fifth or sixth rib festival in Warren.

But, other than listening to my taste buds, I never really had any criteria for that judging.

That all changed this week.

I was among a group of 21 people who attended a Kansas City Barbeque Society judging class Thursday evening at First Lutheran Church in Warren.

It took us all more than four hours to work through the class, but, in the end, every one of us passed the final exam and earned our badges.

Through a show of hands we learned that most of us were there because we appreciate barbecue and this was the next step in that life. The way I look at it is, barbecue has given me a lot (most of it can be measured in pounds). This is a way to receive even more while using my interest and expertise to give back.

A few of those in the class were cookers who wanted to better understand how they are judged.

Long-time KCBS members, cookers, judges, and instructors Carol and Randy Bigler of Huntsville, Ala., ran the show.

I thought I had judged a lot of food. My record looks rather pathetic compared to the Biglers’ and many others in the KCBS. A master judge has to judge at least 30 barbecue events. There are ribbons that indicate judges who have exceeded 100 and more.

These folks know what they’re talking about.

The ever-present threat of the grueling final exam hung over us, but Carol tried to lighten things up.

“You’re going to join a nice family (in the KCBS). You’ll meet a whole lot of nice people,” she said. “We have a lot of fun when we go to these events, but we also take it very seriously.”

The point of the class is to make sure all judges are on the same page. “As a KCBS judge, you are not judging by what you like, you should judge by the standards defined by KCBS.”

A judge is expected to demonstrate integrity through “consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, and principles,” Carol said.

Judging a KCBS event is not a comparison. Each judge records scores for each item before moving on to the next.

Certain KCBS representatives have access to the judging results and will approach judges whose scores are consistently out of line with the majority.

At the same time, she said each judge is different and there is no right and wrong in judging.

That brings us to the good part.

Judges have to know their way around chicken, pork ribs, pork (shoulder or butt), and beef brisket.

They have to evaluate each sample on three attributes – appearance, taste, and tenderness.

Carol explained some ways that presentation can lead to low appearance scores. Taste is the most subjective category. Tenderness is also up to the individual, but most judges recognize meat that is too tough or too mushy.

The scoring range is from two to nine. Nine is excellent – not necessarily perfect. Two is inedible. If you put a two on your card, you’d better have that sample on your plate when someone comes to ask about your scoring. “If you choke it down, it’s now a three,” Carol said. There are no 10s.

A score of one is a result of a disqualification approved by competition representatives.

Illegal garnishes, an insufficient number of portions for the judges, foreign objects in the box, marked boxes, sculpted meat, and the incorrect meat, will result in disqualification in some or all judging categories.

The judging process is very formal. There is no table chatter, nor checking out other judges’ score sheets during the judging. The only approved drink is water. Alcohol is not allowed during, nor even before, judging. Other drinks interact with the taste of the meat. Judges are expected to use forks to take their samples out of the container and then eat the samples with their fingers. Cleansing the palate after each sample is recommended. Crackers and water are available.

While I feel I learned quite a bit and will be a more qualified judge, my favorite part of the class was the practice.

Each judge was presented two samples of each of the four meats, all prepared by Dean Wells’ Hog Wild BBQ. I was in seat 1 and table 4.

While Wells was under orders to make sure the dishes would earn a variety of scores, they all tasted good to me. I used the “top-of-the-mouth” test to squish some samples – determining that one was too mushy (it’s an industry term). I had to give low marks on tenderness to another sample that was too dry.

Three of the samples were illegal and I should have given them ones for appearance. After missing two, I decided the green squiggly stuff was kale and took a shot. Kale is an illegal garnish. I was right.

We showed hands for each score. I consistently hit among the top two most popular answers.

And, I passed that grueling final.

I am now a certified barbecue judge. And I have pins to prove it.

I wore those pins to judge the ribbers at the All-American BBQ Festival on Friday.

It was a wonderful surprise when the organizers announced that the celebrity judges would get a shot at not only ribs and sauce, but pork and brisket, too.

The training helped. I felt much more comfortable that I had a clue about what I was doing.

It was hot – I was drenched by the end of the hour and it wasn’t like the other guys celebrated by dumping the Gatorade on my head. Former Pittsburgh Steeler Bill Asbury, a fellow judge for four of my Ribfests even mentioned that he could tell it was humid by looking at my shirt.

The KCBS folks said judges could eat two pounds of meat if they finished everything put in front of them. I gave it my best shot, even went back for seconds, thirds, and maybe a little more.