Friday, May 25, 2018
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Mary Bilyeu

Judging food contests is fun but it's also a job to be taken seriously



I‘‍m invited to a lot of events where I get to judge food. The Lagrange Street Polish Festival, with pierogi, and Pizza Palooza have already been on the menu. Coming up are this weekend’‍s Annual Northwest Ohio Rib-Off and the kuchen (cake) competition at the German-American Festival in a few weeks.

Everyone thinks that this is a great gig, getting to enjoy so many samples of good food, and I don‘‍t deny that it is. I go to wonderful events, meet exceptionally nice people, make friends, eat well, and have a lot of fun.

But judging is harder than people think it is. It’‍s not just about eating with glee and abandon.

You have to pace yourself, and not eat too much beforehand. Then one bite of each item, that‘‍s it, to avoid a full stomach and tired taste buds. Perhaps a small second one if there are many ingredients, not all of which made it into the first bite, or if a confirmation taste is needed at the end in the midst of deliberations with fellow judges. But an entry should capture a judge‘‍s love in the first taste, as the food shines and dances and shows off, so a second one shouldn’‍t even be necessary. It‘‍s usually clear whether something is good or bad as soon as it touches the tongue.

You have to set clear terms about judging criteria. Appearance? Aroma? Texture? Color? Adherence to theme? Creativity? There are many options, and they need to be established. Taste, of course, is a given, and rules over the other categories.

Sometimes you can find yourself facing a judging dilemma. At a chili cook-off several years ago, one entry was really good ... but it was a really good chicken soup. It wasn‘‍t chili, not in my opinion, anyway. (Or, it turns out, in my fellow judges’‍ opinions.) So, then came the debate about what constitutes chili -- beans or no beans? Red or white? Thick or thin? Broth didn‘‍t count, so we had to discount the entry despite its excellent flavor. It wasn’‍t chili, and this was, after all, a chili cook-off.

Once the samples have been set in front of you and you start judging, you realize that there is a wide range of tastes in the world and they don‘‍t always agree with yours.

I competed in a dessert bar bake-off one time, and tasted samples of other entries after the event was over. A rhubarb custard bar that had been entered as a family favorite was so bad that my ex-husband actually spit it out the window in our car. However, the window hadn’‍t been rolled down yet. Yes, he spat it at the window, not out the window. We‘‍re still not sure whether the bar itself, or the mess as it slid down the glass, was more disgusting.

But as a judge you‘‍re obliged to eat every offering, the delicious and the disappointing.

As a former cooking contester, I know how people feel when they submit their entries, from cookies to cake and from pie to pierogi. Pride is on the line. Prize money, too, sometimes. Time and ingredients and grocery money and trial runs have been invested. And then there are the hopes and dreams, too, that a judge hates to deflate.

I don’‍t always get a chance to interact with competitors once the contests are over. But I like to do so, whether congratulating excited winners or taking a moment to say something complimentary to those who didn‘‍t take home a prize. It’‍s important to me that everyone feels their efforts were recognized. You can‘‍t win ’‍em all, as they say, but you can‘‍t win at all if you don’‍t try. And trying should be applauded in addition to the win.

So although it‘‍s a fun task, judging contests really is a job to me. I take it very seriously.

And I hope I’‍ll continue to be invited to do it.

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