As I made my way to the judges’ room at the recent Kansas City Kosher BBQ Festival at Temple B’nai Jehudah, giddily inhaling the pungent smoke wafting from the grills of 20 competition teams, my heart was pounding.
By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN
I was a nervous wreck.
My Sunday afternoon was to be spent evaluating barbecue with amateur judges like myself — and with Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) Master and Certified Judges.
To that merry band add one Simon Majumdar of the Food Network — author, food journalist, formidable Iron Chef judge and tireless cuisine-seeking adventurer and globetrotter.
Oh, did I mention that Majumdar has smoked with the best of them at the American Royal Barbecue?
What had I gotten myself into?
Earlier this year, Rabbi Mendel Segal, organizer and officiate of the second annual Kansas City Kosher BBQ Festival, solicited my participation as a judge.
“Sure, Rabbi Segal, would love to,” was my immediate, off-the-cuff response.
I was happy to be included in this groundbreaking festival that showcases barbecue prepared under strict kosher procedures.
There would be chicken, beef ribs, turkey and brisket rolling off grills from teams around the country with names like Goy Boy BBQ, Maximum Loin and Burnt Offering. Proceeds from the event would benefit the non-profit Vaad HaKashruth of Kansas City, which provides kosher certification, supervision and education in the community.
The festival was for a good cause and would bring Jews and gentiles alike in barbecue consumption and perhaps lift the haze a bit on what exactly kosher means — and could barbecue possibly be kosher?
On the surface, my responsibilities in judging the merits of each team’s ‘cue seemed easy enough. After all, I’ve lived in Kansas City for 25 years and have eaten my weight and then some in burnt ends, ribs, turkey and brisket — and cheesy corn.
I’ve grown to respect the intense barbecue culture we so lovingly nurture and heartily defend in this city. My palate has evolved — from my first Gates Bar-B-Q encounter the week I moved here from Des Moines to the barbecue I enjoyed last week — to recognize good barbecue from excellent and mediocre from bad.
I’ve had the extraordinary fortune to write about barbecue in various local and regional publications and on national blogs.
My late husband’s family taught me the joys of slabs of ribs pulled from the rack of a first-generation Hasty-Bake grill.
But judge alongside the Kansas City Barbeque Society? And Majumdar?
Frankly, I wasn’t sure I was up to the task — that is until I was escorted to my chair in at Judges’ Table No. 1 in the judging room, handed a bottle of water and saltines to cleanse my palate and listened to the mission of KCBS, the largest international organization of barbecue enthusiast.
Finally with my hand raised, I pledged, along with the group, the KCBS creed.
I was right at home in this room, I realized. United in barbecue.
This was serious business, being a judge. About 25 of us, four Table Captains (or runners), KCBS representatives Peg and Dave Rogers and a handful of festival organizers were safely tucked away, out of sight from the competitors and gathering crowd.
In rapid-fire succession the rules of judging, KCBS-style, were recited. No talking during tasting, no peeking at your neighbor’s scoring sheet, no changing your mind once you’ve recorded a ranking for each category on appearance, taste and tenderness. Don’t get sauce on the scoring sheet in deference to Peg, who would tally scores on a computer in the corner of the room.
Sitting to my right was Grant Scott, an affable member of Dixie Wrecked Competition Team from Tulsa — he and his teammates won the ribs category in the Great Lenexa BBQ Battle in June — and also a Kansas City Barbeque Society Certified Judge.
Next to him was Majumdar, who simultaneously thrust out his hand and flashed a big-as-Kansas-smile and said, “Hello, I’m Simon.”
Ron Cotter, a KCBS Master Judge, sat at the head of the table and next to him, another Master Judge. Rounding out our group of six was a newbie about to have his inaugural barbecue judging experience.
Across the room was my friend Duane Daugherty, a.k.a. Mr. Doggity, a KCBS Certified Judge and humble owner of one of the finest culinary palates around these parts. We exchanged smiles and I felt his encouragement.
Then the judging action ensued.
Table Captains lugged in box after box of fragrant smoked meats for us to gaze at, sniff and eat. Quickly immersing myself in a private barbecue bubble, and oblivious to how Scott or Majumdar were judging each category, I gained a satisfying rhythm of my own.
Between rounds the camaraderie in the room percolated, stories were exchanged amongst Certified and Master Judges and novice judges, like myself, soaked it all in. Majumdar graciously obliged to pictures and autographs and shared Iron Chef tales.
In two hours time I consumed 24 healthy portions of barbecue. A pile of sauce-stained paper towels, empty water bottles and remains of nibbled saltines littered Judges’ Table No 1.
In addition to KCBS rules and regulations, I developed a few Kimberly Winter Stern judging guidelines, should I ever be asked to judge again:
• Do not wear precious clothing in case of spillage.
• Do not wear a belt, but instead wear something with an expandable waist.
• Pack your own wet washcloth in a Zip-loc bag.
• Bring some floss.
• Do not — absolutely do not — bring preconceived notions of what it means to judge barbecue in the presence of KCBS Certified and Master Judges.
Walking to my car at the end of judging the KC Kosher Barbecue Festival, having successfully exorcised my earlier apprehension, I reveled in the sights and smells of the event that was in full swing. I was elated.
Tucked under my arm were a Styrofoam container of leftovers — who can eat that much barbecue in two hours? — and a bottle of Rabbi Segal’s kosher sauce.
My belt was one notch looser and my skirt was dotted with barbecue sauce. I had strings of meat stuck in my teeth.
But perhaps the most important nugget of knowledge I gained at Judges’ Table No. 1 last Sunday was the clear understanding that yes, while there were Certified and Master Judges, my opinion carried equal weight.
Rabbi Segal, if you’re reading this, pretty please, can I judge next year?
Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.