Judge Ribs Not Lest Ye Ribs Be Judged

This past weekend I was lucky enough to help judge the Texas Pete Twin City RibFest in Winston-Salem.  Although ribs don’t hold a place of any real importance in North Carolina barbecue culture (sorry Rib Rabbi, but it’s true), I still didn’t hesitate to sign up when offered a coveted judge’s seat.  And the fact that 60 MPH winds and heavy downpours were forecast didn’t dampen my enthusiasm.  (Luckily, only the rains materialized while I was at the event.)  I was ready to make my first appearance as a bona fide, albeit not certified, barbecue judge.

Receiving instructions from festival organizer Allen McDavid (Photo by Ben "Boss Hog" Pressgrove)

I can attest that the six-person judges panel took its job as seriously as one would expect (i.e., at least somewhat seriously).  We were focused on the task at hand, especially since Ms. Texas Pete 2010 no-showed for her judges gig, leaving us menfolk with nothing to ogle besides the ribs on the table in front of us. 

Festival organizer Allen McDavid spent upwards of three minutes preparing us for our roles as judges.  He paced back and forth in front of the judge’s table and explained…  The ribs would be served one at a time on a numbered plate to protect their identity (lest any of the judges be on the take and working for a contestant).  Each rib was to be judged on four categories–taste, texture, tenderness and appearance.  Each category should be rated between 2 and 9, with 2 being the worst score we could dole out and 9 being the best.  (Apparently barbecue judges cannot count to 10.) A score of 1 would be assigned only if a contestant broke a rule related to the category, such as garnishing with something other than lettuce or parsley.   After tasting the first rib, we should write down our scores, take a drink of water to cleanse the palate, and wipe our hands if we so desired.  And then we were to taste, rinse, wipe and repeat until each contestant’s ribs were sampled.  

Nothing too it, right?  Anyone could be a barbecue judge.  Piece of cake.  Or so I thought until the tasting began.  After tasting ribs from each of the eight cooking teams I reassesed my opinion.  I began to question everything I first thought.  Was it really such an easy gig to taste ribs?  Was there more too judging than meets the eye?  In short, was it true that just anyone could be a barbecue judge?  Upon further reflection, I concluded that, yes, in fact anyone could do what I had just done.  But in all seriousness, it’s not as easy as it looks to judge food and I have no doubt that more skilled judges would have picked up on some subtleties that I missed.

Getting down to business (Photo by Ben "Boss Hog" Pressgrove)

The ribs I tasted ranged from mediocre to pretty darn excellent, with most entries falling in between.  There were two standouts in my mind and I only wish I knew how the ones I picked as my favorites ranked with the other judges.  Based on the number of judges who held onto my favorite ribs to finish eating after the competition, I’d say I was not alone in my opinion.  Interestingly, only one contestant served a dry rib, while the other seven were slathered with sauce. 

Next we moved into the sauce contest.  Judging ribs is a bit more difficult than I expected, in terms of comparing different flavors, textures and looks objectively as possible, but it was doable.  Judging sauces by themselves was much more tricky.  I’m not used to eating plain BBQ sauce out of a cup with a spoon.  It’s just not something I do most Saturday afternoons. Plus, as a North Carolina boy who gets his kicks from thin vinegar sauce, sampling a bunch of thick sauces was a shock to the system.  There was a quite a range in flavors, from an almost teriyaki-like sauce with strong fish oil undertones to a fairly NC-style ketchup/vinegar concoction to some spicy hot Kansas City-style recipes.  Although I enjoyed most of the sauces, I’d recommend they be served on meat instead of eaten from the bottle. 

So, who won?  See this article for the winner’s list.  Did your’s truly’s picks win the big prizes?  Frankly, I have no idea.  But I sure did enjoy myself.

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