From now on, I’d appreciate it if you would address me as “Your Honor.”
I’ve been a judge at various food competitions over the years, including the Heritage Recipe Contest at the State Fair last week and, since 2006, at Springfield’s Blues and BBQs Festival.
But this time I’m not just any schmuck who gets tapped to judge a competition because I have some food knowledge. I’m a certified judge – one who’s passed the Kansas City Barbeque Society’s judging test. I even have the certificate to prove it.
When first asked to judge at Springfield’s Blues and BBQs festival, I wasn’t anxious about doing a good and fair job. I’d eat a bunch of ribs and decide which ones I liked best. How hard could it be?
Just goes to show how much I knew. I entered a room full of large, hearty men and a couple of women. Everyone was good-natured and jovial, but it quickly became apparent that many were serious about barbecue, veterans of multiple barbecue competitions as judges, contestants or both. Jeff Ball, who’s been in charge of Springfield Blues and BBQs judging for years, handed out packets containing a sample judging sheet, the rules and criteria, and explained that we’d be following the KCBS guidelines, even though it wouldn’t be a KCBS-sanctioned contest.
I started reading: CRITERIA FOR RIB TURN IN SAMPLES Entries are scored in areas of APPEARANCE, TENDERNESS/TEXTURE and TASTE. The scoring system is from 9 (excellent), 5 (average), to 2 (bad). All numbers between two and nine may be used to score an entry. A score of one (1) is a disqualification and requires approval by a Contest Rep. Each contestant MUST submit at least six (6) separated and identifiable portions of meat in a container. If there are fewer samples, the judge not having meat to taste will judge the entry as one (1). This in no way will penalize other contestants who have properly submitted their entry. Garnish is limited to chopped, sliced, shredded or whole leaves of green lettuce (no kale, endive or red lettuce) and/or curly parsley, flat leaf parsley or cilantro. Marking of any kind of the meat or container will not be tolerated. This will include but is not limited to painting, sculpting or decorating the meat. [Sculpting meat? What did that mean? Would we be presented with pulled pork that looked like Abraham Lincoln or Elvis?] No aluminum foil or stuffing is allowed in the container. No toothpicks, skewers, foreign material or stuffing is permitted. Any entry not complying with this rule will be given a one (1) in APPEARANCE, a one (1) in TASTE, and a one (1) in TENDERNESS/TEXTURE. To simplify the judging process, no side sauce containers will be permitted in the meat judging containers. Meats may be presented with or without sauce as the contestant wishes. Any entry not complying with this rule will be given a one (1) on APPEARANCE.
Hmm – maybe this wasn’t going to be so easy after all. Minutes into the tasting, I appreciated KCBS’s numeric judging system. I’ve always felt a bit rebellious when asked to rate something on a numeric scale, whether it’s a college class, a customer-satisfaction survey, or a visit to the doctor: “On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your pain?” Compared to what? Childbirth? The flu?
For barbecue competitions, however, it works, not least because although each team only tastes a portion of the entries, it helps to keep them straight. It wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined, not just keeping them straight but also deciding between the best.
This year, our judging will have taken a quantum leap forward. That’s because earlier this month Ball sponsored a KCBS judging certification class in Springfield. Forty folks (plus a certified judge taking a refresher) gathered for an intensive daylong session: morning lectures and afternoon tasting and judgment of the four categories in KCBS-sponsored events: Chicken, beef brisket, pork (usually shoulder, butt or picnic), and ribs. Other big-time contests may specify only pork, such as Memphis in May, Texas events that focus on beef ribs and brisket, or the whole-hog-with-mustard-based-sauce Carolina Q contest. The Jack Daniels Invitational is the most prestigious: only teams that have won state or national competitions are invited to compete.
But Kansas City Barbeque Society is the largest sanctioning body; its flagship event, The American Royal, covers more than 17 acres and awards more than $110,000 in prize money. KCBS rules and judging criteria are used not just for contests it sanctions, but also for numerous other competitions.
There’s a reason KCBS rules and judging are so widely used in contests for the many different styles, meats and methods of American barbecue and their partisans. “The beauty of Kansas City barbecue,” says Carolyn Wells, KCBS executive director who, with her late husband, Gary, founded KCBS in 1985, “is that you can ask 10 different people to define Kansas City barbecue, and you get 10 different answers, and they’re all correct.” In a Kansas City tourism website, she says, there are listings for almost 100 barbecue joints smoking meat in Kansas City in a melding of flavors and styles from across the country.
“Always keep in mind that this is a meat contest, not a sauce contest – or even a green garnish contest,” intones Ed Roith at the beginning of the Springfield class. “We want you to forget what you think you know about barbecue.” It’s a mantra he’ll repeat throughout the day, along with admonishments about the difference between competition barbecue and backyard or restaurant barbecue. We’re fortunate to have Roith as our instructor: He’s not only a KCBS charter member, he’s also the guy who, along with another KCBS member, instituted KCBS’s judge certification program, its standards, criteria and revisions.
Roith competed in barbecue contests for 12 years and was a KCBS board member for 18 years. Until last year, he taught judge certification classes across America, and even abroad. These days Roith, who lives in Kansas City, doesn’t teach classes farther away than a day’s drive. Clearly we were in good hands.
Not every participant had previous experience judging Springfield’s Blues and BBQs contests. Some were competition cooks; others wanted to begin competing or judging. For those of us who’d previously judged Springfield’s event, the basic KCBS rules were somewhat familiar. But there were a host of nuances and tips to improve our judging skills. Judges must remain silent when tasting each entry until everyone on that judging team has finished scoring. The scoring is done with eraserless pencils: once a judge has written a score, it can’t be changed. The purpose of all those rules, says Roith, is to ensure each competitor has an equal starting basis, and to give judges a uniform protocol to follow.
All those rules and regulations may make KCBS judging seem deadly serious and to an extent, it is. Whether competitors are in it for good times or glory, they’ve spent countless hours and money to participate, and deserve thoughtful and consistent judging.
But while barbecue competitions have their serious side, they’re also lots of fun for competitors, judges and everyone else involved. Roith says, “It’s really a big family.” There’s a tongue-in-cheek element, too, from the KCBS monthly newsletter, The Bull Sheet, to the oath that prospective judges must take:
“I do solemnly swear to objectively and subjectively evaluate each barbecue 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 barbecue and the American Way of Life may be strengthened and preserved forever.”
So on Aug. 25, as my fellow judges and I slip surreptitiously away from the Old Capitol Blues and BBQs festivities to begin our judging duties, we’ll be thinking of the standards and criteria we learned. But we’ll also be expecting to have a great time.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.
Downtown Springfield, Inc., sponsors Old Capitol Blues and BBQs Aug. 24 and 25 on the Old State Capitol Plaza.