One of the topics that gets the most heated debate on the NEBS email list is judging, how judges judge, and whether judges should be required to cook with a team in order to be a judge.
I used to be wholeheartedly on the side of requiring a judge to cook, but as I enter my third year of judging and have seen an increasing amount of self-righteousness among the teams towards their entries, I’ve changed my mind a little bit. I think that judges should have an understanding of the process of barbecuing – a thorough understanding, in fact. But the teams who make the strongest and loudest arguments for judges to be cooks are doing themselves a disfavor. Let me explain…
The arguments which flame up on the mailing list often revolve around relatively nit-picky elements like the temperature of the food the judge eats, garnish and/or presentation, or amount of sauce, rub, and flavor profiles. One of the arguments that is made for judges being required to cook with at team (they don’t have to have a team of their own – just cook with a team) is that doing so would help them understand why the food could be cold by the time it gets judged, or how hard it is to make a turn-in container look good, or how even the flavor profile can change after it comes off the grill and cools off…
The problem with this argument is that often when an entry gets judged down because it was cold, it is because it affected the taste. And often out of six entries in a category, the one that gets judged down because of temperature is the only one that arrived cold. So there’s the hole in the argument: if 5 teams managed to get a warm sample to the table, why couldn’t the 6th. Wouldn’t it be the 6th team – the one with the cold entry – that would be screaming the loudest for the judge to have empathy for the difficulty of competition barbecue? If that was the case, then we’d be giving good scores for effort, not for success.
Now, I’m sure someone will say "well, that’s not fair – what if its cool out!!?!?" Well.. then probably everyone entry will be kind of cold. And that’s OK. Or maybe someone will say "you’re not supposed to compare entries when judging!" which is true. And I don’t. However, you can’t help but notice that an entry is cold. If the rest of the entries are cold (and supposed to be warm) and it affects the flavor of each fairly, then its a level playing field. If only one is cold and the rest are warm, then I’ll judge the cold one on its own merit – how does it taste and feel? Is it appetizing? I don’t compare it to the other entries for those qualities, I simply am using the other entries to gauge whether it is an issue with outside temperature or the entries taking too long to get to the table.
So that is just one example of where I think the "judges must cook" argument falls apart. However, I think that there is definitely a level of education that should be mandatory for judges. At one contest last year I was speaking with my fellow judges and I was amazed – absolutely blown away – by how many don’t do barbecuing on a regular basis. I think that if you are an avid backyard BBQ’er, you know how difficult it can be.
I’ve stayed up until the wee hours of the morning cooking a pork shoulder. I’ve had ribs that I thought would come out great be disappointing and chicken I was unsure of be the hit of a party. I’ve had side dishes be ready way before the meat (and they think turn-in times are tough!) and vice-versa. I have a cabinet full of spices and rub mixes that I’ve concocted through the years, a bookshelf of barbecue cookbooks, and a notebook where I keep track of every time I cook, taking note of weather conditions, where I got the meat, what I did to prep it and how I cooked it.
Anyone who says I don’t know barbecue simply because I’ve never cooked with a team can go stick it. I appreciate what these guys do and that’s a big part of why I haven’t made the plunge yet – its an expensive time-consuming hobby and I’m not ready to do that right now. Probably someday. But any cook who makes a blanket statement about the ignorance of judges insults me and anyone else like me.
There are also plenty of cooks who judge from time to time to better understand what the judges are looking for or simply because they didn’t enter the contest. I think it is equally important for cooks to judge – no cook should berate a judge without judging several contests themselves. Even then, cooks can have just as odd tastes as any judge. At a recent contest, a piece of chicken (thigh) that had the lightest possible grill marks, fatty skin, and wasn’t cooked to complete tenderness got rave reviews from two long-time cooks. I thought it tasted par-boiled, lightly grilled and then heavily sauced. I had a bigger piece than the other two and there are always differences in each piece in a box, but I found it interesting that two cooks found what i really thought was a sub-par piece of chicken to be extraordinary. I can’t offer a reason why, I just thought it was, and my fellow "only judges" agreed with me.
I don’t have a truly solid solution – maybe its an informal gathering of cooks and judges where the judges would have a chance to cook with teams without the pressure of a contest, and the cooks could eat with judges and ask what they would judge a particular piece and why.