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posted: 7/1/2012 5:00 AM

Judging at Naperville Ribfest no laughing matter

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  • Jim Davis, DuPage editor, rib judge. Wearing his official Ribfest judge's shirt.

    Jim Davis, DuPage editor, rib judge. Wearing his official Ribfest judge's shirt.


As you read this, perhaps you're on your second cup of coffee, contemplating some pancakes, maybe bacon and eggs.

I'll be snarfing down some barbecue ribs.

As long as there's been a Naperville Ribfest -- celebrating 25 years this summer, in fact -- its organizers have assembled panels of people who may or may not know what they're doing to determine the best ribs and sauce from among the 16 "ribbers" who are participating in what has become one of the biggest and most popular festivals in the Midwest.

As one of the 2,475,091 Ribfest sponsors (official count), the Daily Herald was asked if we cared to provide a judge for today's tasting, which starts at the lip-smackin' hour of 11 a.m. The email invite landed in my inbox, so I volunteered myself, having not taken on this task in at least 15 years, I'd guess.

It seems things have changed in that time. I remember well ducking out of the office late one afternoon and being herded into a tiny room at "The Barn," a small, almost 50-year-old recreation center near the Ribfest grounds. There may have been some written suggestions on judging, but otherwise it was pretty darned informal as samples of ribs and tiny plastic cups of sauce were brought before about a half-dozen of us.

Today, the process is much more strict. Mayor George Pradel, who strays from his cardiologist's wishes by serving as a rib judge, will deliver a "Rib Judges Oath" to 26 judges, who comprise the Ribfest chairman, police and firefighter of the year, various sponsors, eight children and yours truly -- truly a pre-eminent panel of experts. Hey, truth be told, one of my most vivid memories of judging long ago was after a while everything started to taste the same. How does this one compare to that one I liked eight samples ago? I seem to recall my fellow judges agreeing with that assessment.

Nowadays, there's no kibbutzing with the other judges. In fact, in taking the oath, I'll be pledging not to "influence the decisions of others by any comments or body language." I'll also agree that "only after all the ballots are completed and given to the officials will I discuss the entries just judged if need be."

It gets worse. I'll promise "not to stifle the senses of others or my own by consuming alcohol, wearing perfume/cologne or smoking the morning of the judging." (And I'm skipping church for this?)

OK, I get it. I'll be all business. My official rib judge's packet includes specific tips, lest you think it's as simple as "this one tastes good, this one's bad." There's quite bit of verbiage about texture, and as a longtime rib eater and Weber grill ribber, I'll admit I didn't know that pork goes through several stages, from very tough to tender to mushy to dry and tough. The adage about ribs being fall-off-the-bone good is not good; that's a sign the meat is "mushy." The perfect rib texture occurs when the meat pulls easily from the bone but retains its body. We judge all the sauces separately.

The results of all this discriminate rib tasting will be announced to the Ribfest masses between 4 and 4:30 p.m. today. We'll be covering this epic event, and our report will appear in Monday's editions.

I'm on vacation next week, but if the rib-judging experience so moves me, I'll have a follow-up column for you next Sunday. But I'm afraid I might not be able to do any better than, "I liked No. 14."

It's a blind taste test, of course.

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