OWATONNA, MINN. – The table captain tilted the Styrofoam box before each of the six judges-in-training, waiting for the mute nod that they’d seen enough of the pork ribs within. A few, not yet masters of the poker face, reacted to the sight of kale under the BBQ, but a raised finger from the captain kept them from saying a word.
Each judge lifted a rib onto his or her place mat and began tasting, discerning, decreeing.
From the kitchen of the Knights of Columbus hall, the BBQ kept coming: chicken breast, chicken thighs, babyback ribs, spare ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket.
The judges’ fingers — BBQ is eaten only with fingers — grew stickier and orangier, no matter how many paper towels they crumpled.
Of all the rules that govern BBQ judging, the toughest may be the new one against licking your fingers.
In other words, this really is a dirty job. And yet … wait for it … somebody’s gotta do it.
Almost 70 men and women recently gathered in Owatonna for a certification seminar, one of many hosted across the United States by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS). There are more than 20,000 judges nationwide, yet with upwards of 450 contests each year, more are needed.
Before you knock over a lamp trying to grab the phone to sign up, be forewarned: The job isn’t always hog heaven.
Judging a contest may require you to eat more than 2 pounds of meat. You can’t drink beer. You can’t wear sunglasses.
Oh, and while an overlooked toothpick will disqualify an entry, a strand of hair is permissible “because we can’t say for sure where it came from,” said David Londeen of Eden Prairie, a master judge who taught the class.
Dawn Kolden of Mound was among about two dozen women attending. She was there to learn, but also to join a community.
“No. 1, I don’t know barbecue, and No. 2, I miss this guy when he goes off to make barbecue,” she said, pointing to boyfriend Dan Sundberg of Cologne, who, with his two brothers, makes up the Cooks Bay BBQ team.
Sundberg also is a certified judge, working his way toward master status. What made him pursue a cooking technique that BBQers consider nothing less than a sport?
“Free food, I’m there,” he said, laughing, then turned serious. “The atmosphere in the competition is really cool. And the more you do it, the more you learn,” describing how a perfectly cooked pork rib shows each bite, the meat pulling clean from the bone. If all the meat falls off with one chomp, that’s a sign of overcooking.
Cooking with a judge’s eyes
Not everyone was there to be a judge. Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer of Chef Shack and Chef Shack Ranch came to improve their menu fare. “We’ve been on our own as to BBQ,” Summer said. “We’re trying to up our standards on meat science.”
Aron Jefferson of Little Canada came to get the skinny (so to speak) on bringing his back-yard game up to contest level. “If I see how things are supposed to be judged, I can be a better competitor,” he said.
Olivia Jefferson was at his side, learning the finer points of judging standards. “I need her at home to be able to know what’s good and not good,” he said. Then he smiled: “I sold this to her as something we could do together.”
Olivia thinks her husband’s ribs definitely have game, although she was slightly awed by a system that weights judges’ scores to a factor extending to a 10,000th of a point.
For example, a score of 7 for taste is multiplied by a factor of 2.2972 for a final score of 16.0804. This helps avoid ties when competition is fierce. Even appearance, weighted by a paltry factor of .5600, can make or break an entry.
“I’m learning it’s important to make the box look as nice as possible,” Olivia said, hearing that some competitors will spend 30 minutes placing each sprig of a bed of parsley. “It’s a psychological thing. I didn’t know that before.”
All about the smoke
BBQ is not a verb. Nor is it a grill.
“It is a meat prepared in a very special way,” said Londeen, who has an insurance agency in Edina. “Smoking is what differentiates BBQ from other types of cooking.”
Sauces, in other words, mostly are slathered as a final embellishment to an hours-long smoking process. Yet sauces also are geographic identifiers: Tennessee favors a smoky sauce, while South Carolina likes a mustardy one. Mississippi and North Carolina lace theirs with vinegar.
Minnesotans default to “heavy tomato,” said Londeen. “We don’t like too many spices. What people like here is a ketchup-based, sweeter sauce.”
BBQ’s competitive bar rose in 1987 with the founding of the KCBS, now the largest contest sanctioning society in the U.S., which means that it’s also the largest in the world. Minnesota has been coming on in the world of BBQ since 1996, when the Minnesota Barbeque Society was established.
“Seven years ago, there was only one sanctioned contest in Minnesota,” Londeen said. “Now there are 10,” including next weekend’s Minnesota in May event at the State Fairgrounds. (Visit www.mnbbqsociety.com for details.)
Minnesota also hosts what’s billed as the world’s only BBQ contest held on ice, the Fire on Ice BBQ World Championship on Lake Mille Lacs. Almost 50 teams competed in February, among them Smoke on the Water, Nectar of the Hogs and Rub My Rack. (Yup, really.)
So is Minnesota becoming a hotbed of BBQ?
John Scharffbillig, a master judge from Eagan, paused a beat: “We’re the sleeper.”
The kale conundrum
The judging class was designed to expose participants to various presentations.
Thus, there were boxes in which the meat spoke for itself, defiantly plain against the white Styrofoam.
Other entries came arranged like jewels on beds of green leaf lettuce, parsley or cilantro. But never kale. Kale, the workhorse of buffet tables everywhere, is a forbidden garnish in BBQ. Why?
Londeen suggests that “the snarky answer” likely resembles the explanation for why judging is on a scale of one to nine.
“It might go back to three folks sitting around a table having adult beverages and probably just divining something,” he said, chuckling. Yet because of persistent confusion about kale’s legality, “there’s been a lot of motion on this” at the KCBS board level. Stay tuned.
Money on the line
By the convergence of smoky ribs and cold beer, BBQ contests can be almost too much fun to take seriously. That would be a mistake, at least among those cooking.
This is a spendy pursuit. Springing for an intensely marbled Wagyu brisket, from a Japanese cattle breed, can run $150 easy. Londeen said that most teams will cook far more than necessary for an entry, say, 16 to 24 chicken thighs to get six, or a half-dozen racks to get a six singularly luscious pork ribs.
For Jefferson, the back-yard cook, price is an issue, considering that perfection demands practice. “A brisket can run hundreds of dollars, and it’s just us,” he said, nodding toward his wife. “We can’t eat that much food.”
That’s why he concentrates on more economical pork ribs. “I can get three racks for $36, and then take them into work.”
Winning helps recoup grocery bills. At Denver’s National Western BBQ Throwdown in January, $11,000 in prize money was divided among the various categories. But most contest premiums are more modest.
Sundberg, of the Cooks Bay BBQ team, no doubt spoke for many when describing the importance of people taking judging classes seriously.
“As a cooking team, we can spend $1,000 a week on supplies, entry fees, travel expenses,” he said. “So, yeah, we want our judges to be good.”
The seminar closed with all standing, right hands raised, to recite the official oath:
“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 the 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.”