Your career in food judging could be just one bad bowl of chili away.
by Chris Jay
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If you’ve participated as a contestant in any cooking or home-brewing contest in North Louisiana—think Battle of the Gumbo Gladiators, State Fair of Louisiana cook-offs, or Slow Food North Louisiana’s Soup’s On—you have likely been judged by Meg Davenport. Meg, a former chair of Slow Food North Louisiana who works as an academic coordinator at LSU Shreveport, has made a name for herself as a go-to judge of regional food and drink competitions not because she’s a social butterfly (she is) or a social media influencer (she isn’t), but by sheer force of will.
At a 2012 chili cook-off in Monroe, Meg (who had entered the competition as a contestant) was horrified to encounter what she perceived to be a general absence of, well…chili. Nearly a decade later, she still sounds deeply annoyed by the experience.
“I expected the competition chili to be Texas chili,” she said. “I’d entered this chili competition, and I wanted to win. I’d cut my meat by hand, I’d used a bunch of different ground chilis. When I got to that event and saw soup with shredded turkey…I was blown away that they even had the nerve to enter it in a chili cook-off!”
She paused to compose herself, or possibly for dramatic effect.
“So that’s when I started judging some competitions.”
But how does that happen? You don’t just waltz into some event planner’s office and introduce yourself as a brisket judge…do you?
“There are people organizing these things, and they have to have judges,” Meg said. “Event organizers would say ‘We have celebrity judges’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, but who are those people? How can I sign up as a judge?’”
She’s right. The few times that I have judged a cook-off, I looked around the table each time to find myself mostly surrounded by local media personalities, some of whom had admittedly cultivated real expertise. Judges are typically required to attend an educational seminar where they learn basic ideas like how to tell if meat has been under- or over-cooked. This usually prevents food-judging disasters like shredded turkey soup winning the chili cook-off, but sometimes it’s not enough of a firewall. Sometimes you need an actual expert on chili, brisket, homemade peach ice cream, boudin, or gumbo. That’s the service that Meg provides: a guaranteed minimum of one person at the judging table who will know, for example, that the last thing that rib meat should ever do is fall off of the bone.
“I’m all for people knowing what they’re talking about,” she said. “The people who are doing these competitions are incredibly serious about what they’re bringing to the judging table.”
Once she’d gotten her foot in the door with one or two festivals, Meg said, she “kind of went on a tear from then on.” There were beer judgings in New Orleans, ice cream churn-offs in Ruston, Boudin Wars near Lake Charles, the annual Piggly Wiggly Steak Cook-Off in Springhill, and the enormous Taste of Blanchard Cook-Off, which Meg cites as one of her favorite regional food events.
Eventually, Meg’s career as a food judge became self-perpetuating. Through judging one event, she’d be invited to another, and her growing list of judged events became all of the entrée that she needed in order to get herself into just about any event seeking judges.
She cautiously encourages other food lovers to try the same tactic, if they’d like to get into the judging game. Just don’t take all of the good judging spots.
“If someone wants to judge there are opportunities out there. You just have to dig for them,” she said.
All of Meg’s digging is paying off.
“When I went to the East Texas Brewer’s Guild recently, there were people there asking my opinion on their beer because they knew I had expertise. Then one of the guys was like ‘You need to get her to try this food also. She’s a food judge.’”
More From Meg
Meg is very quotable, but this was a short profile. Here are some gems from the cutting room floor:
Advice for first-time barbecue judges:
“If you’re judging barbecue just to have fun, sign up for pulled pork. Here’s why: If chicken is not cooked properly, it could kill you. If ribs are not cooked properly, they are miserable to eat. If pulled pork isn’t cooked very well, it’s still pretty delicious.”
Advice for competitive cooks:
“Make sure that you understand how the judging works logistically. If you’ve got giant pieces of meat in your gumbo, a judge can’t get all of the ingredients into their spoon at once. If your sausage is the best part of your gumbo, and I can’t get the best part of the gumbo onto my tiny plastic spoon, how can I say it’s the best?”
On her favorite local craft beer:
“I’m not an all-time favorite kind of person. People ask me what my favorite beer is. My favorite beer is the one in my hand, the one that is the right temperature with the correct level of carbonation. When we call something ‘the best,’ that devalues all of the other things that are fantastic and enjoyable.”
Having said that, she admitted a strong affinity for Great Raft Brewing’s Reasonably Corrupt.
On being a woman craft beer judge:
“When people see me and a big, burly, bearded guy next to me at a craft beer event, they initially assume that he knows more about beer. That’s finally beginning to change a little bit. I organized the women of my homebrew club and Red River Brewing to partner on a beer featuring Louisiana strawberries to benefit the Pink Boots Society. I’d encourage any woman in craft beer to be a part of the Pink Boots Society, which awards scholarships to women in beer.”
On the kind of restaurant that Shreveport needs most:
“Korean food. It’s baffling to me. There are some places that have a few dishes, but I would like a dedicated Korean place where I can have banchan until my head falls off.”
To keep up with bon vivant Meg Davenport, follow her on Instagram at @theculturalattache.
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