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posted: 7/8/2012 5:00 AM

To judges go the leftovers; a Ribfest retrospective

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In the already-sweltering Ribfest tent, Naperville Mayor George Pradel rose to his feet last Sunday and bellowed out the rib judges' sacred oath:

"I do solemnly swear to objectively and subjectively evaluate each barbecue meat and sauce that is presented to my eyes, my nose and my palate."

Except that he substituted "platelets" for "palate."

This man, who's had some heart issues, is a hoot.

And with that, we tore in to the first of 15 servings of ribs.

Now I know Ribfest, which ended July 3, is a distant memory. But I did pledge to provide an account of my first stint as a rib judge in more than a decade. Here are the highlights:

• I was actually nervous about the whole thing. We assembled at the ungodly hour of 10:30 a.m., and what if several plates full of ribs didn't set well at that hour? So I had followed the advice of Ribfest organizers to have a "light breakfast" beforehand. Watermelon and an English muffin seemed a wise choice.

• Bigtime kudos to the organizers for evacuating the tent and herding us into the nearby Barn building when a storm approached. As we left on golf carts, it seemed to be clearing to the northwest, and the move struck me as perhaps a little overly protective. Not so. As everyone in DuPage County knows, that was a nasty, nasty storm with winds of up to 80 and 90 mph. I think we were on the edge of it in Naperville, as central DuPage seemed to bear the brunt of the storm.

• We had just finished rib sample No. 4 when the storm passed through. So Nos. 5 through 15 were consumed in an upstairs room of the Barn. Not quite the ambience of an outdoor tent, but we judges soldiered on.

• I really did my best to keep all the samples straight, so the truly outstanding ones got my highest marks. But after the eighth or ninth sample, I was plagued by the same problem of 15 or so years ago: Everything was starting to taste similar, i.e., did sample No. 11 deserve a "7" (highest mark) for "taste," and did I give No. 2 a "6" or a "7" in that category (they were collecting ballots as we went along)? Now here's the good news: They all were really good ribs; no dogs in the bunch, I'd have gladly chowed down on a full slab of any of them.

• We evaluated the sauce separately. We were brought small plastic cups of each of the 15 sauces and were asked to give grades of 1 to 7 in taste and appearance. I was pretty excited because the first several had unique characteristics -- sweet, smoky, late heat, taste of possibly mango -- which I jotted down on my ballot to keep it all straight. But, again, after a while, things were becoming a blur. I felt a little better because some of my fellow judges were gently grousing that it was tough to keep the sauces straight.

And, sure enough, once again after the ballots were tabulated, we judges had strong enough opinions that the top three "ribbers" were declared winners in ribs while three different outfits, as it turned out, collected best sauce awards. (There was a separate kids choice award from a panel of youngsters who also went through the same backbreaking work.)

Oh, who I am kidding? It was a lot of fun. And, yes, after attending Ribfest that same evening and indulging in even more ribs, I was in a bit of a pork coma.

So, if you by chance are ever asked to judge the ribs -- or any other food, for that matter -- I heartily recommend it. And here's the very best news about my rib-judging experience of a week ago compared to that of years gone by: This time, they let us keep the leftovers.

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