Last weekend I had the honor of being one of the judge's for my hometown's first annual "Sauce Wars" tomato sauce competition. When I got the call to participate I thought "this should be fun!". I must admit that I haven't been very involved locally since the days when I owned my regional theater here: The Westchester Show Place. I grew up here. I'm "third generation" Italian American Peekskillite and this competition was to be part of a three day Italian festival.
When I got off the phone it occurred to me that I hadn't asked for any details beyond when and where I was to show up. I had no details about the competition rules or requirements or even how many people would be submitting their sauce. I watch FoodTV and the Travel Channel. I'm a "foodie". I know good sauce. What more did I need to know? I figured I would taste a few sauces, be social, have some fun and do my part for the community. How hard could this possibly be?
Competition day arrived and the weather was picture perfect. What a great day to spend outdoors with friends. Predictably irreverent, I donned my favorite apron which is imprinted with "DON'T MAKE ME HAVE TO POISON YOUR DINNER" across the chest, and showed up at the address with which I had been provided. The meeting place was a nice small office adjacent to the festivities. I was greeted by old friends and familiar faces. I soon realized that we were going to be doing the bulk of the judging in this space and not outside in the beautiful weather. We would do the preliminary judging inside and then be joined by the local "celebrity" judges for the final round of three sauces. Hey, wait a minute. I'm not a "celebrity"? My ego isn't too bruised.
Lesson number one: when you get asked to judge a food competition, ask for details!
I am quickly introduced to the other two non-celebrity judges, given a name badge and a clipboard and we are briefly instructed as to how we were to score and judge. This is where we first learn that the competition had been such a success that there had been 82 entries in the competition, some from as far as New York City. 82 different sauces to taste! We were to judge 10 at a time and then our results would be tabulated and the second round would be narrowed to 20. After that, 12 and then be joined by the "celebs" for the final 3 on stage.
Let's stop and do the math. 82 + 20 + 12 +3. When it was over we will have tasted 127 samples! 127 tastings with only water for palate cleansing. This was going to take a long time.
Lesson number two: when you create a food competition make some rules and guidelines for the entrants.
The first set of 10 jars is placed on the judging table along with a large supply of plastic spoons. "OK, begin". With my first taste I discovered that the sauce was cold. After I made my "unattractive face" I ask about the temperature and was told that "there was no way to heat them up but that they had been left out of the refrigerator for a while to warm up to room temperature". Cold tomato sauce! How do you judge COLD tomato sauce? It's neither fair to the contestants nor [especially] to the "non-celebrity" judges being asked to sample 127. Temperature completely throws off the taste balance, acidity and viscosity. Not to ignore the fact that cold, oily sauce is off-putting. I wouldn't even want to taste my own [wonderful] sauce cold!
As I make my way through the first set of cold, oily sauces something else has revealed itself to me and my fellow judges: there were no guidelines for the sauce. If it was red it's in the competition. The sauces were with or without meat. I'm sure a few had fish in them. Some had vegetables. Some were so spicy that water would not cleanse the palate. Other entries tasted more like Mexican salsa or burrito sauce. The competition should clearly have been broken down into categories.
By the time I had tasted 40 very different sauces I was turning a little green. Not "with envy" green. Just "how the hell am I going to taste 87 more samples?" green. I think it was around this time that my mind began to wander to the inevitable thoughts of "I wonder who made these" and "is there a cure for botulism?" and "I wonder if I'll ever again be able to smell tomato sauce without getting nauseous".
By the time we finished the first round of 82 I was in the groove. The bulk of the judging was behind us and we knew what we were in for for the rest of the rounds. We had already tasted all of them. The rounds should get much easier if you don't factor in the cumulative effect. I spent a lot of time suggesting to the people in charge that next year it should be a cannoli contest instead!
The "celebrity" judges arrived and to their credit decided to join us "nobody" judges for the final 12 round. They were lovely, gracious and fun. I took a great deal of pleasure watching them jump in and take spoonfuls of the cold, oily sauces. When they heard how many samples we had already tasted they were very complimentary and no doubt grateful that they hadn't arrived any earlier in the process.
We did it. Somehow we narrowed the sauces down to the final 3. The top 3. We were escorted outside to the stage where we were announced, introduced and seated. It was great to be outside. The fresh air was very welcomed. We did our final judging in front of the audience and the winner was announced.
It was a fun day. It was a good experience that I surely won't soon forget. Unfortunately the competition more closely resembled "Bizarre Foods" with Andrew Zimmern than "The Next Great Chef"!
That evening I went home to eat some crackers, brush my teeth and gargle several times followed by a nice dinner at my favorite Indian restaurant!