How do judges narrow it down?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 30, 2003

VIDALIA, La. &045; Many people think they can cook good barbecue and many others think they know good barbecue just from its taste but judges for Memphis in May-sanctioned barbecue events may tell people differently.

Some people think it cannot be that hard to judge good barbecue. It just has to taste good.

But these judges actually do go to a one-day training session to learn how to find the best barbecue of the day.

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There is a lot more to it all than it sounds.

Just ask Roy Barber, a 12-year veteran of judging and Memphis in May competition. He was trained the first year training existed, in 1991.

But eating can be taxing.

&uot;You’ve got to pace yourself,&uot; Barber said. &uot;People don’t realize how much they’re eating.&uot;

One first bit of advice is just to drink water because it is less filling &045; and to drink as little as possible.

If a judge goes to 16 tables at one competition and only eats one, 1-ounce bite each time, that is one pound of meat the judge has eaten. Barber said not many judges eat just one bite either.

&uot;Experience makes it become a whole lot easier,&uot; Barber said, where a judge can tell whether the meat is any good from the initial tasting.

There are three areas to compete in for Memphis in May and it is all about the pork &045; whole hog, pork shoulder and pork ribs.

But there is more to it than just slapping a rub or a marinade on some pork and throwing it onto a pit; just ask the people that compete week in and week out.

And the judges will not hesitate to tell people there is a lot of work going into the best barbecue.

Take the whole hog, for instance. There are three distinct parts of that hog &045; the fatty shoulder, the lean loin and the ham.

With the shoulder, it has to be the whole, big thing and the fat must be cooked out.

For ribs, cooks can either barbecue loin ribs or spare ribs.

&uot;Mostly teams have gone to loin ribs because they are more uniformed,&uot; Barber said.

Each team gets three judges to visit their set up for each category there are entered in, and they can enter up to all three.

Each judge takes a minimum of 10 minutes and a maximum of 15 minutes per team.

No two judges will get the exact same three teams; that is guaranteed by the computer’s program to select the order randomly.

But there is also blind judging where some judges eat the pork out of unmarked, Styrofoam containers that come straight from the team.

In general, there are six areas the judges rate the teams in. However, each area is weighted differently, weighted in a way only the computer system that is used to calculate the scores, knows.

Of course, what the judges are looking for is no secret to people that compete all the time.

In fact, some competitors like Mickey and Margie Fromm of the Barnyard Roasters. It is allowed for people that cook to be judges, just not all in the same competition.

But others have yet to figure it all out.

Here is Memphis in May judging 101:

4 The first is area and personal appearance. Barber said the area should be neat and clean. Teams should ask, would people feel comfortable eating there?

4 Second is presentation. The team with either offer the information or the judges will ask the team to explain how the meat got from its raw state to its present state.

&uot;We’re trying to find out if they know their cooking process,&uot; Barber said.

4 Third is appearance of the product on the grill and table. &uot;Does it look appetizing?&uot; is the question, Barber said.

4 Fourth is tenderness. While Barber admitted this is often subjective, there are some essentials. The meat should separate easily but have some pull to it and not be dried out, Barber said. And, generally, all the fat should be rendered out of the meat.

4 Fifth is the most important thing in barbecue &045; flavor. &uot;And this is the most subjective thing,&uot; Barber said.

As far as the sauce, it does not matter if it tastes good off of your finger, it must compliment the meat, Barber said.

Of course, the best barbecue is a combination of these last two elements.

&uot;At Memphis in May, we call barbecue the combination of meat, spices and sauce, cooked together over a wood or charcoal fire and cooked to perfection,&uot; Barber said.

But do not forget there is a sixth element to the judging.

4 Sixth is overall impression.

&uot;It’s that warm fuzzy feeling when everything is just right,&uot; Barber explained.

This element allows the judge to made decisions about the team as a whole including their personality along with their product.

&uot;It is very hard to be specific about what overall impression is,&uot; Barber said. &uot;It’s really how you kinda feel about the whole thing.&uot;

After the preliminary judging is done, the three highest scoring teams from each category go into the final round. A team is never judged in the final round by the judge from the first round.

Here is where the method seems a little tricky.

Going into the final round there are nine teams. If team A is entered three times because they were in the top three in all three categories, they are considered three separate teams in the final round. In essence, there are team A ribs, team A whole hog and team A shoulder.

After judging, the scores go into the computer, and the top three places for each category are determined. Whichever team gets the most points wins the Grand Championship.

No team with three entries is at any advantage to a team with just one entry. If team B whole hog has the highest score overall, they have the best product of the day and are then deemed Grand Champion. There are no combining scores. Each product has one score.

So by the end, the teams are tired and the judges are full.

But judges do not have fatter wallets at the end of the day. They may, in fact, have slimmer ones. All judges pay their own way to get to the sites.

&uot;It’s a hobby,&uot; Barber said. The perks are the people. &uot;I have friends from all over the United States from barbecue.&uot;

Added his wife and fellow judge, Jane Barber: &uot;It’s the people we met and the places we go.&uot;

That is why they do it. And the food isn’t too bad either.