Presented on a table to a row of people is a Styrofoam box full of smoked brisket.
To most, it looks simply like a to-go box from your local barbecue joint. To the 26 participants of the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) certified judging class, however, it was an abundance of questions, concerns and critiques.
In typical Jewish fashion, these soon-to-be certified kosher barbecue judges questioned everything: What’s a smoke ring? Do you sample both a slice and an end piece? Why is this rib different from all other ribs?
It’s this critical concentration on flavor and uniformity that goes into judging barbecue contests, of which a kosher one, Hava NaGrilla, will be held Aug. 27 at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, also where this class took place.
To become a judge, participants took the five-hour class on June 4 and had to pass a short exam, surrounded by bundles of paper towels and water bottles capped and laid horizontally to avoid spills.
KCBS has certified 20,000 judges across the country. In addition to participants in this week’s class, 14 other judges have been kosher certified.
KCBS representative Carol Bigler explained each rule down to the nitty-gritty. After a few hours of careful clarification outlined in the guidebook by Bigler, the real judging commenced.
Participants consumed samples of barbecued chicken, beef ribs, brisket and turkey. Table captains first showcase the sample in a Styrofoam container, giving judges the chance to form an appearance score.
The cuts of meat don’t need to be cookie-cutter, and fancier or more expensive meats don’t necessarily increase your chances. Bigler said she usually buys the best option at Sam’s Club; in competitions she’s beaten celebrity chef Johnny Trigg and Tony Stone.
“It’s like football — any given Saturday or Sunday,” she said.
For taste and texture, it’s the flavor and smoke of the meat that matters. Each category is rated on a scale of two to nine (nine being the best), and then multiplied by a weighted number, totaling the three scores.
The process is tedious, scoring everything from flavor profiles to minute visual details.
“We want each and every entry to be judged on its own merits,” she said. “Whether you like white meat better than dark meat, it doesn’t matter. It’s what’s presented to you in that box.”
Between cleansing palates with crackers and water and the samples, it’s possible to consume about 2 pounds of meat during a contest, Bigler explained to salivating sighs of hunger from participants.
Per kosher rules, the box in which the meat is presented must be lined with aluminum foil, but it’s simply for aesthetics.
Traditionally, people use greens in their boxes, but contestants spend too much time on something that will not be eaten, so instead, the guidelines denote foil. No foil can result in a lower score.
Volunteers in the kitchen prepped each box for the judges, meticulously examining each one for debris or “foreign objects.”
Judges critiqued the samples harshly yet fairly — some favored the taste on the outside of the brisket, for instance, but called the inside “bland” — while grillmaster Alan Glazer sliced and prepared the turkey in the kitchen (though it’s fair to note Glazer is a radiologist first and foremost).
The beef ribs were firm with a soft heat and a mild pepper bite. Stu Gordon, who organized this class, called them “one-handed ribs” — the bones were thick enough to grasp in one hand and go in for a deep bite.
After the class, participants turned and faced east toward Jerusalem to recite the official KCBS pledge.
Although she hails from the land of pulled pork and fried everything — Alabama — Bigler, who is not Jewish, said altering KCBS guidelines to fit the laws of kashrut wasn’t a huge adjustment.
With the help of Kansas City, Kan., Rabbi Mendel Segal, who sparked a new age of kosher barbecue, they worked together to fuse their regulations.
“It was a real collaboration between the two of us, and other Jewish community members who came in and gave me ideas of what to do and what not to do, which is even more important,” said Bigler, who charmingly pronounced “kosher” as a homonym for “hosier.”
Other participants were new to kosher rules, too.
Tony and Susan Corrice flew from the Indianapolis suburbs for the class. They attended a KCBS contest in October where they noticed someone with a tag “KCBS Kosher Certified” and were intrigued.
The Corrices, who are not Jewish, wanted to learn more in regard for their love of food.
“When you go to standard KCBS contests, it’s always the same four categories,” Tony Corrice said, “so that was my interest because it’s just not what we normally do.”
“And we like to learn more about things that are not typically us,” Susan Corrice added.
Tony Corrice said the kosher competitions level the playing field because cookers and meats are provided.
“Everybody’s got to have the same tools and the same options,” Susan Corrice noted. “There’s people that spend $20,000 on a cooker and then there’s a guy next to you that’s got a barrel cooker. The small guy might get lucky and cook something that the big dog couldn’t, but usually it’s the bigger teams that do so well. So to level the playing field, that’s exciting.”
A little closer to home, nothing would stop Queens, N.Y., resident Mordechai Striks from attending the class — not even a four-car fender bender.
“I got pulled off the highway and then I took an Uber here,” he said. “I wasn’t going to miss it. Everything is OK, thank God.”
Striks will cook at Hava NaGrilla under the team name Uncle Mordy, John the Catholic & the Meatzvah Girls.
The meaning: Striks spoofed kids’ entertainer Uncle Moishy and the Mitzvah Men, changing the latter part as a nod to his two daughters. His team partner, John, is not Jewish, but still wanted to be included.
Striks has been competing for several years in kosher contests, but this class showed him the other side of things.
“I’ve never heard what’s been told to the judge or by the judge or what kind of challenges they have. It was interesting to [see] how I can be better,” he said.
Although not a competitor, Alan Glazer dedicated a chunk of his time to preparing the meats through the night of June 3 — after Shabbat — in the parking lot behind the synagogue, and kept cooking right up until the meat met the judges’ mouths.
“It’s been an all-night, all-day affair,” said Glazer, who was assisted by his son, Eric.
Although introduced as the “grillmaster,” Glazer said he is just the opposite.
“I do a lot [of grilling and smoking] at home, but not for crowds,” he said, adding it was a challenge.
But the challenge is where Bigler’s love for the barbecue community comes from.
“The more that we can reach out to all cultures, all religions, the better off we are,” she said. “And food is a great equalizer of everything, and I think that’s what Mendel had in mind, and I’m hoping that’s what everybody has in mind — that we can bring people together instead of having all the separation.”
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