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I loved the barbecue judging experience

July 9, 2015 - Andy Flynn
Diet or not, life is too short not to try new experiences, and there’s no bigger culinary experience in Lake Placid during the Fourth of July weekend than the I Love BBQ and Music Festival.

Last year, festival organizer Dmitry Feld signed me up to judge the hot sauce contest. After a couple of throat-burning entries, I began to question Dmitry’s true motivation for the invitation. Was there a Lake Placid News editorial I wrote that he didn’t enjoy?

“Dmitry,” I said after the event, “I thought you liked me.”

This year, he asked me to judge one of the barbecue contests, which required me to take a four-hour course and become a Certified Barbeque Judge for the Kansas City Barbeque Society. I didn’t think twice about it. After all, it was a major step up from the hot sauce contest. Now I’m certified to judge in any of the KCBS contests in the U.S. and abroad.

And so began by journey into the secretive world of the barbecue judge.

After taking the course on Thursday, July 2, I judged my first contest — the New England Barbecue Society grilling contest — on Friday, July 3. The NEBS entries were New York strip steak, chicken, fatty sausage (sausage of any meat but not in a casing) and pizza. There wasn’t any room to judge or volunteer at Sunday’s KCBS contest, but I was allowed to stick around and see the process.

For many onlookers, the only experience they have with the barbecue contests at the I Love BBQ and Music Festival is watching teams cook at the Olympic Speedskating Oval. If they’re patient enough to stick around until the end of the day, they’ll see who won the contests. It’s what happens in between — behind the closed doors of the Lake Placid Middle/High School cafeteria — that matters. Obviously, without the cooking teams, there would be no barbecue, but without the judges, there would be no contest.

And so, one by one, team representatives stream to the cafeteria door at the high school, like ants to candy, and submit their entries in white Styrofoam boxes.

For the KCBS contest, it’s chicken at noon, pork ribs at 12:30 p.m., pork shoulder at 1 p.m. and beef brisket at 1:30 p.m. There’s a 10-minute window, from 5 minutes before the deadline to 5 minutes after the deadline, to deliver the entries.

Then it’s in the judges’ hands.

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Judging area

All the people in the judging area are KCBS Certified Barbeque Judges: the two contest reps, Don and Leslie Lovely; the volunteers who take the entries and give them to the judges and clean up; the table captains; and the judges.

On Sunday, July 5, there were 31 teams that entered the KCBS contest. Once the entries were dropped off at the high school door, the volunteers took the pre-numbered boxes and numbered them again. They each got a new entry number (only the reps know which boxes the teams were assigned) and a number for the table where it would be judged.

While the contest reps monitor the judging, the entries are delivered to the tables.

There are six judges and one table captain to a table. Each judge has a paper plate with a maximum of six entries. For this contest, with 31 entries, there were six tables. Five tables judged five entries, and one table judged six entries.

The volunteers handed the boxed entries to the table captains, who managed the judging at their tables. They handed out water bottles, paper towels, plates, scorecards, comment cards and pencils. There were only four plastic forks at each table, one for each entry. Forks are only used for taking meat from the entry box to the judge’s plate; judges are required to eat with their hands. This is barbecue, after all.

My biggest challenge during the NEBS contest was figuring out what to do with the extra sauce on my fingers. Judges aren’t allowed to lick their fingers, and this is a tough temptation to resist. Once we pop out of our mothers’ wombs, I think it’s human nature to lick our fingers after each meal. And the KCBS won’t let us do it! Instead, judges dampen paper towels with water to wipe off the extra sauce.

Once the entries arrive at a table, the table captain lines them up. One by one, he/she opens the lid and shows each judge so they can give the entry a score for Appearance.

“It’s how much you want to eat that food,” KCBS Master Judge Nancy Muller told our class about judging for appearance.

Then the table captains pass around the boxed entries before the judges sample the meat — taking at least two bites — and give scores for Taste and Tenderness. Depending on the contest, judges can consume up to 2 pounds of meat. That’s why many judges bring coolers to store their leftovers, which they are allowed to bring home.

At KCBS contests, the meat is given scores from 2 to 9. A score of 1 is reserved for a disqualification, and a 10 is never given because nothing is perfect. Here is the scoring system: 9 excellent; 8 very good; 7 above average; 6 average; 5 below average; 4 poor; 3 bad; and 2 inedible.

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Judging

While I didn’t get to judge the KCBS contest, I had a true judging experience during the I Love BBQ and Music Festival.

The Certified Barbeque Judge course opened my eyes to the world of barbecue judging, which is much different than the world of barbecue cooking. I didn’t spend any time with the cooking teams because I wanted to make sure I was eligible to judge. KCBS rules are clear that judges cannot fraternize with the cooks on turn-in day until the judging is over.

During the judges meeting for the KCBS contest, Don Lovely said there seems to be a lot more interaction between the judges and the teams at contests across the U.S., which can be problematic depending on the conversation.

“I’m not saying this is a bad thing necessarily,” Don said. “It’s good for judges to talk with teams and spend time with teams to find out what goes through their heads and how they do their job. ... But the one thing that we really frown upon is talking about what actually goes on inside the judging area with the cooks. When you’re judging, when we use a double-blind system, you’re not supposed to know whose food it is, just as they’re not suppose to know who judged them.”

It’s like Las Vegas, Don said. What happens in the judging area stays in the judging area. I wasn’t even allowed to take photos of the entries during the judging because cooks could see who was judging their food, and that is forbidden.

Asked why people judge the KCBS contests, most people said “the food,” which wasn’t surprising. They get to eat great American barbecue.

What surprised me the most was the reason I would go back and judge KCBS contests. I found the food simply a means to an end. For me, meeting great people from around the U.S. and Canada was the best part of judging.

These are people who make a hobby out of traveling to barbecue contests in North America and Europe — people like John Keevill, a retired U.S. Marine who owns a construction company in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and his brother-in-law Chris, a corrections officer in the Syracuse area. There was Dennis from North Carolina, Paul from New Hampshire and so many others.

Above the culinary and social perks, barbecue judging is a lifelong learning course of its own.

“Every time you judge, you’re learning,” Don Lovely told the NEBS judges before the entries arrived.

There are two other things I learned at the I Love BBQ and Music Festival. First of all, everyone eats in the judging area: the judges, reps, volunteers and table captains.

“It’s better to be a volunteer,” said volunteer Jo Ann Folin, of Lake Placid. Volunteers get to eat what’s left in the boxes after the judges take their pieces of meat. They eat better than the judges because they get to sample all the entries, not just five or six.

My final lesson was based on experience. After my fingers were wiped and the table setting was cleared, while the other judges were asking for beer, I was picking my teeth.

Next time, I’ll remember to bring dental floss. It’s not provided.

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KCBS judge’s oath

I do solemnly swear

To objectively and subjectively

Evaluate each barbeque meat

That is presented to my eyes,

My nose,

My hands,

And my palate.

I accept my duty to be

an Official KCBS Certified Judge,

So that Truth,

Justice,

Excellence in barbeque,

And the American way of life,

May be strengthened and preserved forever.

 
 

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Blog Photos

I Love BBQ and Music Festival reps Don and Leslie Lovely, left, begin the judges meeting Sunday, July 5 in the Lake Placid Middle/High School cafeteria prior to the Kansas City Barbeque Society contest. (News photo — Andy Flynn)