By Keith Fisher
“Hey, Virgil, what do you think of that corn field over thar?”
“It ain’t as pretty as that filed of wheat.”
“Are you crazy? The hog waller is prettier than that wheat field.”
“Come on, Lamar, look at the way those wheat stocks wave in the wind. It reminds me of the amber waves of grain from the song.”
I used to think of a conversation like this when I heard the term field judge. When I found out what they do, I soon found out their job is so much more.
In a Dutch oven cook off, the field judges keep watch over sanitation. It’s their job to make sure cooks use safe food handling practices, and take meat temperatures. Today, it’s for the safety of the taste judges, but in the days of sample distribution, it was to protect the public.
Traditionally, the winners of a cook off, were asked to come back next year and field judge, Now they are chosen by the event director. We had good ones at the championship this year.
I had the chance to speak with most of them and renew acquaintances. I asked them what it was like judging in the world championship.
Ron Hill said, “Very nice. Especially in this competition, these are all great cooks.”
Brian Terry told me, “It’s an excellent job. No responsibility—no pressure—I get to eat.”
“I like that idea too,” Bruce Tracy said. “The level of competition is so high, and the talent, so intense, that there’s not a lot for a field judge to help the teams with. They already know it all at this level.”
Kent Mayberry kept a close eye on procedures, saying, “It’s all about food safety.”
One of the duties of a field judge is to check Dutch ovens for cleanliness. What kinds of things are you looking for?
Well, today,” Kent said. “We lifted a lid on one of these ovens and you could smell an odd smell coming from the inside the pot. It’s just an automatic, not pleasant smell. It wasn’t quite rancid, but it was strong enough to wonder.”
“So I asked the team to take it outside, smoke it out, and re-oil it. Or what you can do is put water in and boil the rancid out. 99% of the ovens were good today, but you can smell when the oil has gone rancid, you get an initial shock.”
“It’s better to tell the team to boil it out now, then to let the food judges taste the rancid. If it’s rancid, I’m 99% sure they won’t advance to the finals.”
Brian, who was judging the finals on Saturday, said he didn’t smell the ovens. He just asked if they had cooked in them yesterday, or the day before. They had, so he didn’t need to check them.
On a personal note: Rancid oil isn’t the only thing a judge is looking for. In a cook off (Not the worlds) I came across a whole set of ovens that hadn’t been cleaned. There was food stuck to the inside of one of them. It was embarrasing to tell a friend they needed to clean their ovens before they could start.
So, guys if the cooks in this competition are so good, what exactly do you do?
Ron Hill said, “Try to look busy so I don’t get fired.”
“Even at this level, people make mistakes,” Kent said.
“If we see something really blatant we might mention it to them.” Bruce said.
Brian said, “I look for licking fingers. Keeping meat out to long, we check the meat temperatures to make sure they’re in the safe range, but in this level of competition, generally, there isn’t a problem.”
There was a time when the field judges were looking for reasons to remove points. I’m glad they have become a source of help to the cooks. If a cook makes a mistake, the field judges are there to help.
Listen to the rest of my interview with Brian and Bruce. They kept saying that the level of competition didn’t leave them much to do. So, I asked what kinds of things they would be looking for in different cook off.
Next time, we’ll talk about some of the things you can do in a Dutch oven. And a recipe or two.