POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. &
After four hours of intense study, the 60 students stood, raised their right hands, faced West and recited a pledge to uphold truth, justice and the American way.
"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," the students chanted with their instructor as they looked in the direction of Kansas City, Mo.
And thus were minted another batch of Kansas City Barbecue Society certified judges, part of the growing army of backyard connoisseurs needed to administer justice in the hugely popular world of competitive barbecue.
"To become a wine judge takes two years. To become an orchid judge takes seven years," says Rob Greene, a New Paltz, N.Y. The retired environmental analyst recently attended the class, one of several the organization holds around the country. "I haven't aspired to either, but this takes four hours. This is serious, but it's fun."
It's also a big business. Fueled in part by attention from food media, interest in barbecue competitions has skyrocketed.
Since 2000, the Kansas City group has seen the number of competitions it sponsors jump from 94 to more than 250 this year. The Arlington, Texas-based International Barbecue Cookers Association went from 75 to 130 during the same period.
"When I started in the mid-80s, if you had 20 cooks you considered that a huge venue," says Jeff Shivers, executive director of the International Barbecue group. "Now if you have 50, that's considered small."
But more competitions means more judges are needed, spotlighting the previously obscure world of barbecue judging schools, most of which are run by the regional and national barbecue associations that sponsor competitions.
Ten years ago, the Kansas City association ran about five one-day schools a year. Today, classes (which average about $75) are held around the country virtually every weekend. The group has certified more than 8,000 judges.
Toni Holbrook, a founding member of the Florida Barbecue Association and an associate dean at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., is one of them. She got hooked a decade ago after attending a competition her brother was in.
Now she, her husband and son travel the country in a vintage motor home judging competitions.
"It's a whole subculture and has a whole vocabulary of it's own," says Holbrook, 47. "And it's people drawn from all walks of life, including doctors and lawyers."
Judging barbecue isn't always as glamorous as it sounds. Judges don't get paid and generally spend the day sitting in tents while consuming several pounds of meat over the course of the day. Or maybe that's one of the perks.
"It's great fun if you get great food," says Diane Hampton, the executive vice president of the Memphis in May festival, a pork-only organization boasting 6,000 judges. "I must admit, as a judge, I learned more about a hog than I ever really wanted to know."
It's not uncommon for members of one organization to be part of another, but they all have subtle differences. Memphis in May has both blind judging (in which judges don't know whose barbecue they're eating) and onsite judging (teams of judges who visit each competitor). The Kansas City group uses only blind judging, while Florida uses blind judging but a more intricate scoring system.
Getting certified to judge competitions involves more than merely developing an appreciation for fine barbecue.
Judges must learn to navigate the increasingly complex rules that govern everything from garnishes (parsley and cilantro are fine, kale and endive are not) to how sauces are applied to the meat (sauces that pool or puddle incur penalties).
The recent class in Poughkeepsie opened with master instructor Jerry Mullane playing the short audio recording of the rules all judges must listen to before each competition. And of course, it is read in a monotone to avoid any biased inflections.
Mullane then launched into a list of critical judging faux pas to be avoided. No alcoholic beverages. No carbonated beverages. No scented wipes. No smoking. No photography. No cell phones.
"The worst thing you can drink is a diet soda," he warns. "It affects your taste immediately."
No sitting next to your spouse, even if she's a judge. No one wants a spousal voting bloc, or one trying to influence the other. "Wives control the table," Mullane says joking.
And while it might seem obvious, no vegetarians.
"A woman at a competition scored everything a two," Mullane says of the incident at a Massachusetts competition that prompted this rule. "We went over and asked her what gives?"
She explained that she didn't eat meat, but she and her husband do everything together.
"That's the only person I ever removed from a contest," Mullane says.
The final hour of the class focused the big three &
appearance, taste and tenderness &
as the trainee judges were presented with plate upon plate of chicken, brisket, pulled pork and ribs. Entries are scored from — to 9 (the higher the better).
There's no test at the end, but the lessons nevertheless can be tough to master, says Mike Lake, chairman of the Kansas City Barbecue Society's certified judges program.
"We do not compare one entry to another," he says. "That is probably the hardest thing that a KCBS judge has to keep in mind, to forget how Grandma used to make ribs so tender they just fell off the bone. Just keep that out of the mind."
Siblings Rebecca Shahar, Jonathan Rosenstreich and Peter Rosenstreich, drove in from New York for the class.
"We are all BBQ fans, and what can be better for siblings to do together," Shahar said. "I missed a bridal shower to be here. You wouldn't want to be the only sibling in the family without a diploma."
Once certified, it's not uncommon for judges to plan vacations around competitions in need of their services.
That's how Linda Mullane, a board member of the Kansas City association, got started. For her family's first barbecue vacation in 1996, they drove to from Louisiana to their home in Williamstown, N.J., judging competitions all along their route.
Today, they spend virtually every weekend from spring through the end of fall driving between competitions up and down the East Coast.
"We don't have time to do barbecue vacations as much as we would like to," Mullane says. "Right now, we are booked every weekend until the beginning of November believe it or not."
What's a good BBQ? Now you have to go to school to know
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. &