The trials and tribulations of judging barbeque


It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Not long after I began writing this column in 2006, I realized that the job came with a few perks. There were invitations to food writers’ dinners in some of Chicago’s best restaurants. Cookbooks began arriving in my mailbox. Some weren’t that great but, hey, they were free. One of the first and best perks was being asked to be a judge at the Old Capitol Blues and BBQs festival. Like longtime food writer for Vogue magazine and curmudgeonly Iron Chef judge Jeffrey Steingarten said about being asked to judge at the Memphis in May World Barbeque Competition, I figured it was “…no doubt in recompense for a noble deed I had committed in a former life.”

“How cool is this?” I thought, driving to my first judges’ training session, amused that such a meeting was even necessary. After all, how hard could it be? We’d eat a bunch of ribs and decide which ones we liked best. Just goes to show how much I knew.

The room was full of large, hearty men. I was the only woman judge, something that’s been true most years since. Everyone was good-natured and jovial, but it quickly became apparent that the majority were deadly serious about  barbeque: veterans of multiple  barbeque competitions, as judges, contestants, or both. I was handed a packet that contained a sample judging sheet and the rules and criteria, and 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 five (5) separated and identifiable portions of meat in a container. If meat is not presented in such a manner and the judge not having meat to taste, will judge the entry as one (1). This in no way will penalize the 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 on the meat or container will not be tolerated. This will include but is not limited to painting, sculpting, or decorating. 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.

That was just for the ribs. There were also similar numbering systems and different guidelines for the other categories: pulled pork and “other.”

The rules for Springfield’s Blues and BBQs competition are based on those of the Kansas City Barbeque Society. It’s “dedicated to promoting and enjoying barbeque” as well as being a “clearinghouse of barbeque information,” and the world’s largest such organization, with more than 14,000 members. Judges for KCBS-sanctioned events must pass a certification class and take an 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.”

 Whew! Maybe this BBQ judging gig wasn’t going to be so easy after all.

I’ve always felt a bit resentful – even rebellious – when asked to rate things 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? But I’ve come to appreciate the KCBS rating system. It works, not least because it’s a way to keep the entries straight and compare them. Even so, picking winners isn’t easy, especially between the best entries.

Things will be a bit easier for the judges at the 8th annual Old Capitol Blues and BBQs Festival, held downtown on Aug. 26 and 27. That’s because Jeff Ball, who’s been in charge of the competition for years, has added new categories. For many years there were three: ribs, pulled pork, and “other,” which could be anything as long as it was grilled/barbequed. Choosing winners for the ribs (all competitors must submit a rib entry) and pulled pork was hard enough. Even though there weren’t as many “other” entries, how could anyone choose between barbequed oysters, smoked beef brisket, and a grilled banana dessert? This year there are separate categories for beef brisket and desserts as well as “other.”

Having additional categories will definitely simplify matters for us judges this year. But with 40 rib, 24 pulled pork, 22 brisket, 23 open, and 11 dessert entries, I can guarantee that it still won’t be easy!  

Contact Julianne Glatz at

RealCuisine Recipe
My barbeque sauce

Barbeque experts and aficionados agree: It’s all about the meat. Drenching barbequed meats in sauce either keeps you from appreciating the exquisite artistry and scientific knowledge that went into its preparation – or masks an inferior product. In fact, some eschew sauce altogether.
That said, good barbeque sauces used judiciously can enhance without overwhelming. Here’s my favorite.

  • 1/2 c. vegetable oil
  • 2 c. chopped onions, NOT super-sweet
  • 1 large red pepper, approximately 1 c. chopped
  • 1 T. kosher salt
  • 2 T. chopped garlic
  • 1/4 c. dark rum or bourbon
  • 1/4 c. pure chili powder
  • 1 T. coarsely ground black pepper, or more or less to taste
  • 1/2 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 c. firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 c. pineapple juice
  • 2 c. catsup, preferably Heinz
  • 1/2 c. unsulfured black strap molasses
  • 1/2 c. Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 c. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 T. hot sauce, or more or less to taste
  • 1/2 c. pineapple or apricot preserves
  • 1 chopped jalapeno pepper, optional, seeds removed if desired (including the seeds makes the sauce hotter)
  • 2 c. chopped fresh pineapple

In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the onions, pepper, and salt. Stir to coat the vegetables, cover the pan, and let the vegetables “sweat” until they are softened and the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.

Uncover the pan and stir in the garlic. Cook for a couple minutes, then add the rum or bourbon and continue to cook until there is no longer a strong smell of alcohol, about 5 minutes. Stir in the spices and cook a few minutes longer.

Add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat so that the mixture simmers gently. Simmer, stirring occasionally to be sure that nothing sticks to the bottom, until the sauce is thickened, about 45 minutes. The thicker the sauce becomes, the more likely it is to stick, so you’ll need to stir it more frequently towards the end of the cooking time.

Cool the sauce to room temperature, then blend in a blender, food processor, or with an immersion blender. It can be a completely smooth purée, or kept somewhat chunky, according to your preference. The sauce will keep, refrigerated, for several weeks.
Makes about 8 cups.

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