Category: Competitions

Descriptive Food Adjectives

Click here to download the complete list of adjectives on our sister site,

We eat regularly. Whether you’re a snacker who barely eats anything but small meals throughout the day, or a trucker or charter bus driver who eats big meals to endure the longer drives, or an athlete or a member of the military who eats larger and more specific meals to achieve various physical goals, food is a part of our everyday lives. We then go to eat at a restaurant, take a bite of food … and the server invariably appears just then to ask “How is everything?” After chewing that bite of food and finally swallowing, do you honestly know how discuss what you’re eating? If you’ve watched the countless competitions on various food channels you might have an inkling of what to say. But like anything else, it takes practice.

Consider the popular Chicken Pot Pie. There are variations that some might also mention, such as the salmon, lobster, and pork pies popular in New England, the Cornish pasty of Minnesota and the upper peninsula of Michigan, and other local specialty pies. Going with the basic version, a Chicken Pot Pie, be it from a Southern cook, a pie shop in Maine, or a Grandmother in the midwest, has some characteristics which you may expect but haven’t actively thought through. The crust can be a light and flaky butter crust such as the ones found in fruit dessert pies. The more common crust is a shortening crust, although lard is once again becoming popular. These crusts are more robust and dense than their flaky, buttery counterpart. In either case the baker needs to protect the edge of the crust to prevent excessive browning or singing during cooking as this makes the crust edge unpalatable. The sauce in the pie should be rich and thick, creamy and well-seasoned, with a robust chicken flavor. It shouldn’t be thin or watery, or be floury or starchy in flavor or texture. The vegetables should be firm and have a good bite to them, being well-seasoned and flavorful, certainly not soggy or bland. There should be ample chicken that’s well-seasoned, moist, fork-tender, and has a good bite to it, not soggy, bland or fatty whatsoever. Overall the pie should look appealing, have ample filling to be the robust comfort food the diner expects it to be.

In the above discussion there are certain adjectives used in describing the various parts of the dish:

  • Chicken Pot Pie: Appealing, Ample, Robust, Comfort food
  • Crust: Light or dense, Flaky or Robust, possibly Buttery, not Browned, Singed or Unpalatable
  • Sauce: Rich, Thick, Creamy, Well-seasoned, Robust, not Thin, Watery, Floury or Starchy
  • Vegetables: Firm, good Bite, Well-seasoned, Flavorful, not Soggy or Bland
  • Chicken: Ample, Well-seasoned, Moist, Fork-tender, good Bite, not Soggy, Bland or Fatty

What diners expect to find in a good Chicken Pot Pie is now condensed into this relatively short list of adjectives, including both pros and cons. This becomes a method for determining if your own pies are acceptable, or if those made by others or served at restaurants you visit are acceptable. What’s right or wrong with a given pie can then be discussed and any adjustments can be made. The list can also be used to develop cards for judging Chicken Pot Pies at competitions. Learning to talk about food can be that versatile.

In menu descriptions the Chicken Pot Pie can be described in similar manners. But in menu descriptions there are rules that have to be followed:

  • Simple: Ensure any diner can understand the menu description without much further explanation by the server.
  • Accurate: Preparation methods, personnel quality certifications, and other descriptors have to match how the dish is made.
  • Truthful: Point-of-origin or source, ingredient certifications, and related information cannot cause a “bait and switch” situation.

Menu descriptions for a Chicken Pot Pie might read as follows:

  1. “Chicken Pot Pie, a great comfort food.”
    • This can be baked and served from whole, frozen pies without possible issues.
  2. “Handmade, just like Grandma used to make! Rich and creamy, with large chunks of chicken, lots of veggies, and a golden, flaky crust.”
    • The pie crusts, chicken and vegetables might be from frozen and the sauce might be from a can, as that’s how Grandma might have made it. But the pie has to be assembled and baked in the restaurant’s kitchen or in a supplying commissary.
  3. “Our handmade pie, made with fresh hand-cut vegetables and whole chicken, and a thick flavorful sauce in a golden-brown crust.”
    • Only the vegetables have to be fresh, the rest can be as in the first example, including the chicken being from frozen.
  4. “Handmade pie, made with tender, slow-roasted free-range local chicken, with organic vegetables cooked to perfection, a rich and creamy sauce made from whole local milk delivered daily, and our own robust and flavorful lard crust. Our most popular comfort food! Topped with a slice of our fresh, handmade mozzarella and additional sauce on request.”
    • All of this has to be absolutely true for each and every pie. If, for example, local chicken isn’t available for some pies, or anything else in the description cannot be fulfilled, it’s better to 86 the pie off the menu until the described ingredient is once-again available than it is to possibly become embroiled in claims or court judgements of false advertising.

2009 Memphis BBQ Network Competition, Novi, Michigan

What it’s all about; Ribs

It took me quite a while to learn how to cook ribs at home so they turn out halfway decently. What I do is pretty simple: The spare ribs get wiped down, sprinkled with a mix of Kosher salt, pepper and granulated garlic, then slow-cooked in a 200F oven for anywhere from 4 – 6 hours depending on their thickness. The pans are then drained, the ribs slathered with sauce, and grilled outside over medium-high heat for about 45 minutes, with flipping and reslathering about every 10 minutes. They then cut well into servings, fall off the bone, and are tender while still having a good “bite” to the meat.

I’d never imagined I’d be invited to be a judge at a rib-off. But a few months ago, that actually happened. It kinda threw me, particularly since the Memphis BBQ Network-sanctioned competition feeds into the massive Memphis in May competition.

Of course I accepted the invitation. The West Oakland Rib Cookoff & Family Fest happened last Sunday at the Rock Financial Showplace in Novi, Michigan.

One of the aspects they don’t show on documentaries of these competitions is what and how the competitors eat for other meals. You might imagine they send a team member off to the nearest fast food joint for a sack of something, which probably does happen to some extent. But this team (who, from what I understand, have something to do with a scrapyard) cooked their competition-morning breakfast on a massive trailer-based griddle made from a thick steel plate and powered by LP gas.

Something to remember here is that gas of any kind is not allowed for use in the competition itself. Smoking, slow-roasting, grilling, whatever … it must be done over wood or charcoal. The wood or charcoal may be lit via gas, but that’s all that’s allowed. So this amazing gas griddle, covered with potato wedges, bacon, sausage, eggs and an 18-inch skillet filled with sausage gravy, wasn’t used for the competition. It was just along for the ride.

As to the equipment used by the teams for the actual competition, the gear-of-choice ran the gamut from some rather high-end gadgets to some of the most basic backyard stuff. At the higher end was this beast, looking like one of the computerized environmental test chambers used in automotive R&D.

A Fast Eddy’s by Cookshack Series 300 competition smoker being used by one of the teams in Novi.

Now I have to tell you, in most cases I have no idea which of the ribs came out of which of the teams or, of course, which piece of gear. So, I have no idea if the ribs that came out of this Series 300 smoker was any good! Is this thing worth the $11,000 price tag? Don’t ask me, I don’t know …

If I were to ever any competition of this type, I might end up with something like this:

“The Party” smoker from Backwoods Smoker

With its $1330 base price tag, “The Party” from Backwoods Smoker seems just the right size for a competition like this one. I may be a certifiable geek, I may have friends at Microsoft, and I may even program industrial applications for a living. But I definitely don’t need a computer to run my smoker. When it comes to ribs and such, I like getting in there and actually doing the cooking myself. This smaller smoker, protected from the elements with a solid mechanical temperature guage on the front is something I could live with.

A custom trailer-based cook station.

If you’ve seen the documentaries on Memphis-style barbecue competitions, you’ll know there are two kinds of judging. As new judges, Mary and I could participate in the blind judging. Once finalists are selected, they’re subjected to on-site judging by more experienced judges. In this judging, competitors have to put on a “dog-n-pony show”. The judges arrive at the team’s site expecting a polished welcome, a clean cooking area, possibly a maitre’d, maybe even a story which may or may not be true. Some competitors, such as the one above, set up their area in expectation of being a finalist, and were ready for just about anything.

A simple and inexpensive charcoal cook station.

At the extreme other end of the gear are the guys who could do this stuff each and every day using the same equipment in their backyard. The first photo in this post, the photo which made your mouth water and caused you to read this lengthy post already, is simply a close-up of this pile of ribs on this cooker. And you thought you needed something expensive to create ribs good enough for competition …

The blind judging, with yours truly on the far left. The judging was blind but the judges weren’t.

In the blind judging portion of the cometition, teams bring their ribs to a collection area in containers given to them for that purpose. The ribs are checked for garnishes, which are removed, and any custom markings that will cause identification of the entry. All that can be in the container are ribs and sauce. These are then brought to the judging tables, and all are opened simultaneously. We judged on appearance first, then grabbed ribs to judge further on tenderness, flavor and overall impression.

One thing to note: If you’re ever judging one of these competitions, do yourself a favor and don’t eat breakfast.

Mary, on the far right, joined us at training in the morning to become a competition judge herself.

One aspect of this judging Mary and I really liked was that it’s what’s known as “comparitive judging”. Judges are told not to compare endtries to their grandfather’s ribs, their own ribs, their favorite ribs, or ribs they’ve tasted at other competitions. The entries are  to be judged only against other entries at the table. While this is difficult to do at first, it really makes a lot of sense.

I’ll finish this post with a look at the ribs from the Bavarian Smoke BBQ from Frankenmuth, Michigan, who used that nice “Party” Backwoods Smoker to prepare these ribs. Don’t these look good?

West Oakland Rib Cookoff & Family Fest 2009 Competition Results

1st: Pork of the North 

2nd: Smokey Rhodes 

3rd: Smokin’ Post #6

4th: Bavarian Smoke BBQ

5th: Goats ‘a Smokin’

6th: Smokin’ Studs 

7th: Terry Poster with Epoch Catering