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Judges at Forest Park's Ribfest this Saturday won't know whose baby back ribs they're sampling. Judging is blind.
"We're looking for bell-ringers," said judge Nancy Robinson. "When that clamshell box opens, there are the ribs usually sitting on leaf lettuce. The first thing we do, we look at appearance. How good does that rib look? How badly do you want to grab it out of the box?"
Robinson is a master judge and a member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society. With her judging pals, Scott Crawford, Bob Morgan and brother Phil Robinson, she'll be donning her rib bib and licking her fingers as they judge 20-30 contestants' ribs. They'll be rating each rib, based on specific criteria, not comparing them to others.
Taste and tenderness are measured. "There should be a slight tug off the bone, not a giant tug," she said. "If it falls off the bone that means it's overdone. It'll fall off and dirty your clothes." She said the meat is best judged with just a dry rub and very little sauce.
"When a restaurant serves ribs with a lot of sauce, you ask 'What are they hiding?'"
The best barbeque is cooked "slow and low," she said. Timing is everything. The rib samples must be ready-to-eat within a 10-minute window. "We are judging the meat and the skill of cooking it."
Robinson judges all over the region, including the Naperville Ribfest, and she says Forest Park's amateurs are top-of-the-line.
"The ribs in Naperville are [professionally prepared], and sometimes you lose something. The amateur ribs at Forest Park that I've judged have been equal or better," she said. "I live in Forest Park, and it's nice to have good ribs cooked in our own backyard."
Forest Park's fest on Sept. 8 also allows chefs to sell samples of their ribs, $3 for two ribs - which is unusual for a rib festival, Robinson said. They can also buy commercially prepared barbeque from Robinson's Ribs - no relation to Nancy - as well as pizza, burgers and other party food.
Practice, practice, practice
But while partygoers are enjoying live music, kids' activities and sampling food, cooks will be preparing their masterpieces.
Repeat-champion Don Cheval, 56, is a retired Forest Park fireman and EMT. Cheval has placed first or second in blind tastings every year except one.
"Practice," he insisted.
"I practice beforehand. Last night I was agonizing: when should I start cooking? What should I add to the rub? I make my competition practice ribs all summer and winter."
Cheval had tons of practice when he worked at the Forest Park firehouse. With the help of three other men, he would haul his 300-pound safe-like Backwoods cooker to the firehouse and start to experiment. "I'd put in 12 racks of ribs at a time at the firehouse."
The nature of the job made the long, low-temp cooking process perfect. "You can control and balance off the temperature and go off on a two-hour run and come back and the meat would not be burned."
He tweaked his rub and sauce recipes for the lucky first-responders who shared his shift.
"Most rubs are the same. Garlic, paprika, hot pepper, chili powder, black pepper. I'm part Italian, so I like garlic. It's really a matter of figuring out what you like. I'd tell [the firemen], 'I'm cooking for you guys, so you have to be honest and tell me if you don't like it.'"
For the fest, Cheval uses his smaller capsule-shaped Weber Smokey Mountain. He said his knowledge of how fire burns helps in how the meat turns out.
"It's important the way you build your fire. You need a vertical fire in the pit that's balanced properly. There's a water pan in the smoker that's used as a heat sink. You have to account for the metal heating up and adjust the vents and the chimney."
"The cooking process is where you get the smoke flavor. As your fire is burning, you put in your smoking wood. I like fruitwoods like apple, cherry, peach. Any tree that has a fruit or a nut you can use.
"You have to get a clean-burning fire going," Cheval added. "If it's smoking a lot, there's not complete combustion going on. Raw meat will take smoke up to a certain temperature. If the fire's spitting out smoke, there will be smoke residue on the meat. That gets absorbed and it's not going to taste good."
As a fireman, he occasionally helped when Forest Parkers got too zealous with their barbeque grills and set their porches on fire, he said.
"It's illegal to grill out on the balcony in a multi-unit building, but sometimes people do it," he noted.
Cheval likes his vegetables, too, and is a gardener. But with barbeque, he prefers the canonical sides: He's got secret recipes for cole slaw and pit beans with five different kinds: Bush's baked beans, limas, black beans, chili and butter beans. "We put pulled pork in there too with green onions and honey. Every time we make it, people rave about it because the smoked meat's in there." Corn bread with full kernels and jalapeno is another favorite.
As for the fest, Cheval said he'll be too focused on cooking to socialize much or spend time decorating his stand. "It's too nerve-wracking to me. I just want to focus on my temperature and my pit. Just concentrating on the meat to get the ribs in on time."
Ribfest partygoers will enjoy live music from bands Rick Lindy and the Wild Ones, The Hat Guys, Souled out Funk and Seventh Heaven. There will be activities for children.
But judge Robinson said she'll be looking out for Cheval to say hello, even though she won't know which competition ribs are his.
"I have fond memories of Don because he came as an EMT and helped my mother," she said. "Many times he literally saved her life before she passed away at age 97," Robinson said.