When Richard and Susan Schmidt invite folks to judge barbecue cookoffs, they seldom refuse.
The St. Jacob couple require a 2 1/2-hour class on the fine points of judging, but they offer samples during class, and dinner after. On a recent Monday night, 21 showed up. Business owners, a landscaper and a village board member were in the mix.
“It’s the best thing ever,” said Jeni Zahn, 44, St. Jacob board member and executive assistant to Hardee’s CEO. “Even the bad barbecue is good barbecue, much better than you would make at home. It just gets better every year. I do more and more contests. Last year, I probably did about seven.”
The Schmidts seasoned the class with anecdotes and tips they picked up from 16 years of judging. Too much sauce may be covering up not much flavor. Too much hickory gives a lighter-fluid flavor. They showed slides that made their points, then topped off the night by serving smoked pork butt sandwiches, Richard’s hog baked beans and Susan’s addictive caramel corn puffs.
It’s all in advance of St. Jacob’s Jakey in June Barbecue Cookoff from June 5-7. The Schmidts, whose family owns Home Telephone Co., started the event eight years ago. Profits go to a town or school project. This year, they plan to buy a lighted sign for St. Jacob Elementary School.
“We can only handle 32 teams,” said Richard, 75. “We started out with 15 or 16. One team is coming from Texas and Oklahoma this year. They’re local boys in their 30s. They went to school here, then scattered to the wind. One has a barbecue restaurant in Texas. They had such a nice time last year, and they’re coming back again. People do this not with an idea of making a lot of money. Most barbecue teams don’t pay income tax on their winnings. They never make enough to cover their losses. They do it as a labor of love.”
Try to be kind
A slide show gave future judges examples of how good barbecue should look. It started with chicken thighs and moved on to ribs, pork butt, brisket and more. Most entries are presented on beds of parsley.
“You’re judging on appearance, taste and tenderness,” said Richard. “Taste counts most, appearance next, tenderness is last. Sometimes, if they don’t have enough flavor, they will add heavy sauce.”
Each barbecue box for judging should include enough for a table of six judges — and, hopefully, the table captain. Teams are advised to put as much meat as they can in the box. The more pieces, the warmer they stay, although barbecue isn’t judged on temperature.
The Schmidts estimate they have trained more than 500 people to be judges for the St. Louis BBQ Society.
“As I like to say, no one feels sorry for a barbecue judge,” said Richard. “It’s so damn good.”
He encourages judges to be generous. Low scores discourage cooks.
“When judging, error on the side of the team, because of all the work they do,” he said. “It seems to work out. Too low, they won’t come back. The hardest thing to learn for us is: Don’t compare one with another. Take a sip and forget about it. The perfect score would be 100 points. The lowest score at each table is dropped out.”
Best advice for new judges? “Don’t feel intimidated. Everyone was a first-time judge.”
“Don’t anguish over your scores,” said Susan. “Usually your first guess is best.”
“If that third entry is so damn good you want to change your scores,” said Richard, “you can’t do it.”
But judges can bring a little cooler.
“We allow you to take home what you don’t eat,” said Richard. “What Susan does (with pulled pork), she combines cabbage, chicken broth, onions and Montreal seasoning, cooks it until the cabbage is tender, then puts in the pulled pork.
“Some of our judges have been known to eat all week on our meat, haven’t they, Ed?”
As Richard talked, granddaughter Ella Watson, 11 (“She is a little cook. I think she teethed on a spatula and a whisk.”), filled tiny cups with mustard sauce for sampling.
“Carolina Gold (available at Schnucks) is a real good mustard sauce we like,” said Richard. “We like to expand palates a little bit. People from this area aren’t as familiar with mustard sauces.”
A taste for contests
The Schmidts got swept into the barbecue world 16 years ago on a visit to Indiana.
“We went to a contest as tourists,” Richard said. “The smoke-filled air with the scent of barbecue was intoxicating. One of the teams invited us in and fed us. We were so impressed and it tasted so good.”
A couple months later, they headed to Memphis in May, a huge contest where hundreds of teams compete.
“We didn’t know anybody. We came across the same team who fed us in Evansville. We made eye contact. They invited us in and fed us again. My wife said, ‘We can’t just walk around as tourists. We want to get involved.’”
The next thing they knew, they were on their way to Georgia to learn to be judges. They estimate they’ve judged 240 to 250 contests in 20 states and Canada, averaging 20 a year. And they have learned from and rubbed shoulders with the best barbecuers, including Mike Mills, Myron Mixon, Johnny Trigg and Skip Steele.
“We were down in Douglas, Georgia, judging,” Richard said. “Susan was judging ribs. There were only four judges, her, Mike Mills, of Murphysboro, and two other people. Susan takes notes to herself. You talk about it after you get done judging.”
She had noted that No. 3 was seasoned the old-fashioned way with salt and pepper, something he had noted, too. Mills, who has five nationally acclaimed barbecue restaurants, was impressed with Susan’s skills.
“He likes Susan as a judge,” said Richard. “He (jokes) it’s his cross to bear that he has to take me, too. He’s a fine human being as most barbecue people are.”
Richard and Susan like everything about the barbecue contest world.
“We don’t bowl, hunt or fish,” Richard said. “We like good things. When we first had good food like this, I thought, ‘I have to learn more about this.’ ...We have four adult children who run the telephone company. (I’m retired) I can goof off. I love to do this.”
His smoker — a Backwoods brand from Louisiana — has eight shelves and can handle 25 slabs of ribs or more.
“It’s not attractive,” he said. “It looks like an old refrigerator. I needed all the help I could get.”
For that night’s judging class, he had smoked a pork butt for eight or nine hours and made his popular hog and beans, laced with brisket.
“It took me several years to perfect, to get it where it needs to be,” he said.
The meat and beans warmed on a counter, sending a fragrant aroma around the room. Judges lined up for their reward and talked about the fun of it all.
“I like running around and seeing all the grills they have,” said Ed Fetter, 56, a St. Jacob landscaper. “Everybody does their grills different. Everyone is so friendly. They want you to taste the food. You get to eat, eat, eat.
“My favorite? Depends on the contest. Last week, chicken was good. Most times, it’s the ribs.”
Ron Mueller, 55, who owns Kitchenland in Edwardsville, is a judge and a sponsor.
“I sold Richard and Susan cabinets over the years,” said the man with the bushy moustache. “They asked me to fill in (as a judge). I fell in love with it. I’ve been doing it for four or five years now. I went on a diet after the first year I sponsored (the contest). I went from 311 to 210. I’m still within 5 pounds.”
It’s a challenge not to overeat.
“I like the way one of my friends said it. Me judging barbecue is like that episode of ‘Cheers’ when they hired Norm to be a beer taster. You have to eat good on occasion. My favorite? I do like the ribs and the pulled pork. I mix it with sauerkraut, and eat on that a few days with mashed potatoes. I just have to stay away from the bread.”
Jakey in June holds its own in the world of barbecue cookoffs, Ron said.
“I will put the quality of this up against any in the country. There are smaller lines and colder beer, but I would rather drink water and eat more barbecue.”
Here’s one of Richard’s recipes. It can be made in a smoker or in the kitchen oven. “Very easy and delicious,” he said.
Italian Sausage Fattie
1 pound sweet Italian sausage
1/2 tablespoon fennel seed, more or less
1/2 tablespoon fennel powder, more or less
1/3 cup caramelized onions
1/4 cup flavorful white cheese, such as provel
2 tablespoons spaghetti sauce
Barbecue rub, or seasonings of your choice
Small jar of sliced mushrooms
6 or 7 slices thin-sliced bacon
Place sausage in a large bowl. Add fennel seed and powder. Mix well, place in a 1-gallon zippered plastic bag and put in freezer for 15 to 20 minutes to allow mixture to stiffen.
Open bag end and trim small opening in two lower corners to let air escape.
Use rolling pin to flatten sausage until sausage is evenly spread out in bag.
Cut sides of bag open from top to bottom and fold back.
Sprinkle barbecue rub on flattened sausage.
About an inch from end of flattened sausage, lay a row of caramelized onions, topped with sliced mushrooms, white cheese and spaghetti sauce.
Roll sausage up like a jellyroll, tuck in ends and edges to seal tightly.
Sprinkle with more barbecue rub and wrap bacon around sausage log. Use toothpicks to hold bacon ends to sausage log.
Place in oven or smoker, without wood smoke, at a temperature of 235 to 240 degrees. Cook until internal temperature reaches 165 to 170 degres. Sausage log should be placed on a wire mesh so it does not sag or break apart.
Slice and serve on baguettes.
Next day: Heat thick slices in a skillet and top with a fried egg for a special treat.
Jakey in June Barbecue Cookoff
What: Barbecue competition that includes competition barbecue for sale, entertainment and a wine and beer garden
When: June 5-7
Where: 108 N. Douglas St., St. Jacob
Try the barbecue: After 4 on Friday; 4 p.m. until it’s gone on Saturday and noon to 3 p.m. Sunday. Eleven vendors will be selling to the public.
Entertainment: The Robert Perry Band with the Original Mojos, 7- 11 p.m. Friday; Zydeco Crawdaddys, 3-6 p.m. Saturday; and Jason David Cooper Band, 7 to 11 p.m. Saturday
Kids-Q BBQ Cook-Off: 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Watch 15 to 20 children grill either chicken thighs (kids 5 to 10) or ribeye steaks (kids 11 to 15). Parents can stand with their child, but can’t touch the meat. $15 entry, meat provided. Winners gets a trophy. To sign up, call 618 644-2111 or go online to www.jakeyinjune.com
Take a class: Quito McKenna, a Memphis in May Champion, will teach two barbecue classes on Saturday. Fee is $75, including recipes and a meal. To sign up, call 618 644-2111 or go online to www.jakeyinjune.com