Lake Placid News Editor
LAKE PLACID — The tantalizing smell of barbecue filled the air around the Olympic Oval over the Fourth of July weekend during the I Love Barbecue Festival, as competitors vied for the title of best barbecuer. Behind the scenes, the barbecue contest’s participants were judged by a group of individuals who had the daunting task of having to eat, and eat, and eat some more to determine the winners.
“Each judge eats approximately two to two-and-a-half pounds of meat during a competition,” said Jerry Mullane, who teaches the judge certification program for the Kansas City Barbecue Society with his wife Linda. The pair got involved in judging barbecues in 1996 and began teaching others the skill in 2000.
The judging program is designed to train barbecue judges in basic objective standards for judging barbecue meat in KCBS-sanctioned cooking contests. Mullane said barbecue events have increased throughout the country, and competition is strong.
“It’s a sport — they’re competing for money,” he said.
There were about 30 attendees to the judging class that was held Friday at the Lake Placid Middle/High School, and each had a different reason for taking part in the festival.
“I’m here for the food, and to experience all the culinary delights,” said Allen Dana, of Lake Placid, adding that the greatest challenge will be to eat all the 22 different presentations.
Lem Wong, of Ottawa, Canada, said he’s not a professional cook, but barbecues often at home.
“I wanted to learn more about barbecue so I can judge my own product,” he said. “I love barbecue. As soon as I found out about this, I signed up.”
But becoming a judge can bring added pressure not related to the competition, as Wong’s brother Sieark Soo, also from Ottawa, pointed out.
“Now I’ll be able to judge his barbecues,” Soo said.
Peter and Beth Bensen, of Saranac Lake, also signed up to be judges. Peter said barbecue organizer Dmitry Feld has been asking him for a few years to take part, and during the judge class, he realized just how challenging it could be as a judge.
“There’s so much going on with the senses when judging food, you really have to pay attention to all the details,” Peter said. “There’s a lot going on with the taste buds.”
During the class, Jerry Mullane said that judging the taste of the food is strictly based on an individual’s perception — and he compared it to looking at a piece of art — but there are certain guidelines to follow. He added that judging shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“Judging taste at a barbecue contest is totally subjective, and everyone has a different perspective,” Mullane said. “But it’s an important duty. Competitors want it to be fair, they spend money to get to the competition, and prize money is on the line.”
One of the first lessons judges learned was that, in barbecue, the rules of eating etiquette taught by parents is wrong.
“In barbecue, everything you eat should be held in your hands. You’ve got to touch the food,” he said, adding that the food’s texture is factored into the judging.
The basic categories usually judged during a competition include chicken, pork ribs and brisket. The class teaches judges, among other things, that: Chicken may be presented in a variety of forms, and should not be judged on its color, as a pink appearance doesn’t mean the meat hasn’t been thoroughly cooked; a pork rib meat should come off the bone with little effort when biting (when it falls off the entire bone when biting, it is an indication the meat is overcooked); and with brisket, a key judging factor is how easily the meat pulls apart — it is also the toughest meat to judge as it loses its moisture rapidly.
Mullane said the popularity of barbecue competitions has increased significantly over the years, and with it the number of judges.
He said when he began judging, there were 10 teams that would compete and it was difficult to find judges. Now there are nearly 10,000 barbecue judges nationwide.
“Barbecue has become a very hot item,” Mullane said. “It’s grown tremendously in the last 15 years.”
He also said that novice judges are usually the best, as they tend to be more serious in their duty.
Mullane said his greatest challenge when teaching the course is overcoming the misconception people have about barbecue.
“They think it’s just hot dogs and hamburgers,” he said. “But it’s about the smoked meat, that’s real barbecue.”
Jim Donnelly, superintendent of the Lake Placid Central School District, was among the future judges at the class, and he said he was looking forward to judging the food.
“My reason is simple, nothing complicated — it’s to support the community, and this event supports the Shipman Youth Center,” he said.
After an individual takes the judging course, they are sanctioned to judge any event across the country. And Mullane emphasized that barbecue is all about fun. The cost of taking the course is $60, and for more information on the Kansas City Barbecue Society, visit www.kcbs.com.
Lem Wong, of Ottawa, Canada, gets a sampling of pulled pork to taste during a judge certification program for the Kansas City Barbecue Society July 3 at the Lake Placid Middle-High School.
Richard Rosentreter/Lake Placid News