Progressive Barn Party at Music City Horse Show and What You Need to Know About Judging a Food Competition

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I was a judge at an Arabian horse show, but no, I was not judging the competition, I was judging food at the annual progressive barn party. I had no idea what to expect or how to prepare, but common sense said, “go hungry, wear boots.”

As I walked into the giant barn set up in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, hosted by the Middle Tennessee Arabian Horse Association (MTAHA) with a camera that at night time will flash, I was warned I might spook a horse, and already I felt as if I was in the company of lots of experienced horse people, who look at non-horse people in a rather sad pathetic way, because we were either never bit by the “horse obsession bug” or maybe didn’t have the money to enter the glorious world of the arabian horse.

Have you ever been up close to an Arabian? Handsome is the first word I think of followed by magnificent, mighty and intimidating. You can easily see why people fall head over heels for their horses. Photographer, Lisa Abraham allowed me to use her photos.

The above pictures are credited to Lisa Abraham Photography

More of a “foodie” than a horse gal, a smell hit me, and I started to wonder how will I be able to taste, or eat amongst the smell of the “horse.” But, within a few minutes, my nose made the adjustment, and because I hadn’t eaten in several hours, I could actually smell food and maintain a good appetite.

Let me set the scene for you. Horses and their owners participate in this event for four days, and each “barn” decorates their stalls and sections, with pictures of their beautiful horses, ribbons and perhaps other adornments of their theme. Then on Saturday night, they set out a spread for the progressive barn party, where they are judged in five categories.

Best Overall – Best Theme – Best Dish – Best Beverage – Best Dessert

Forgive me for completely underestimating the quality of food I would be tasting, expecting a few casseroles and what might be called barn food.

Of course, I don’t understand that this is a tradition. One of the barns drove from Alabama just to compete in the food competition and her mother had won a “golden spatula, which she had proudly displayed.” This group, the Tennessee Valley Arabian Horse Association, won best theme for tailgating, with a grill attached to their truck and big screen TV, fixing wings and beans.

Tennessee Valley Association – Winner of Best Theme – Tailgating

The Judging Process
President of the Middle Tennessee Arabian Horse Association, Jennifer Schannals, also managed the show and asked me and her husband, Scott, to be the judges. While she may have had the hardest job managing this amazing event, we certainly had the most fun.

As judges, we walked around this large barn, full of horses, and food tables, trying to take modest portions of food. My co-judge, is a big eater, and I had to laugh a few times, watching him robustly attack the food. But, even by the last bite at the last table, he hadn’t lost his taste buds. I on other other hand could hardly manage to taste that last ear of corn that had been smeared in butter, mayonnaise, cayenne and lime. I should have started there first, as they did a knock out job.

But, the TV, the wings, the corn and even the margaritas weren’t the reason I was completely blown away.

Danny Thompson of Lynnbrooke Training Stables, has a beautiful horse, Omega, which he spurred into a Greek theme.

Danny Thompson and party. This picture is credited to Lisa Abraham Photography

I didn’t expect greek food in a barn, and not just one or two dishes, but an entire spread beautifully arranged on three tables. Could it get better? Yes, his entire party, including the dog, were all wearing togas, which made sense when the surprise of the night arrived….belly dancers.

What is it about belly dancers and togas that says “it’s a party and the party is over here.” I tell you the food was great, but it may have tasted just a little bit better because the music, the dancing, and literally, the rolled-out rug for the belly dancers heightened all the right senses. I could no longer smell the “horse” smell. It was easy to see why they were deemed “best overall” for they certainly put in the most effort and made the night exciting for everyone.

Some of the food from this barn included a mixture of lamb and beef for gyros that was unlike anything I had before, babaghanoush, hummus, tabouli, falafels, baklava, meatballs, cheese and olives and roast pork. I did my best to taste EVERYTHING, and still save room for other entries.

I was almost certain that the best dish was going to be the gyros, but then I was directed to the “trash can” pork, which led to a long conversation with the creator of this dish. A fireman, Billy Castle of Castle Creek Farms representing Diamond H, gave me all the instructions and the history of how “trash can” pork evolved. As a fireman, it was discovered that a 55 gallon steel barrel with holes drilled into it works as a great container for charcoal. The meat slow cooks, and if they have to run out the door, the embers keep the meat warm. There is a science and an art to this cooking and I would love to learn more. The result for a pork butt: crispy outside, fall-apart tender and worthy as the “best dish.”

Not having a sweet tooth, I was glad there were not too many desserts to try, and the chocolate chip cookie pie was the clear winner. An extra gold star to Debra Shone who decorated each piece.

And, now the beverages. Well, something purple called aptly, Arabian Nights made with grain alcohol not only won because it tasted good, but it had cute umbrellas. Who expects umbrella drinks in a barn?

Best Overall – Danny Thompson of Lynnbrook Stables (Belly Dancers, Amazing array of food)
Best Dish and Best Drink – Diamond H – Billy Castle, Trash Can Pork and Arabian Nights Drink
Best Theme – Organized by Wayne Clems of the TN Valley Arabian Horse Association – Football Tailgating Party
Best Dessert – Debra Shone with Solitaire Farms – Chocolate Chip Pie

The Judges: Angela, Spinach Tiger and Scott Schannals Jennifer Schannals, Show Manager President, MTAHA

The things I learned about being a food judge and some guidelines for judging

1. People are proud of their entries. Always remember the cooks put their heart into it and they want you to like their food and they want to win. Be sensitive to your own body language, and comments that you may make.

1. Don’t judge a book by its cover. The best dish of the night was camped out in the most modest of settings, as was the best drink.

1. Assess level of difficulty of a dish and how well that dish is executed. A simple dish well executed is better than a complicated dish that is poorly prepared.

1. Go hungry and pace yourself and refrain from that second or third bite. You can always go back for more once you have tasted everything.

1. Ask questions, generate conversation, if that is appropriate to the particular contest. How long did it take to make, what kind of ingredients, how long have you been making this.

1. Refrain from judging based on your own personal taste, but judge on the merits of the dish.

1. Triple check your camera batteries if you are a food blogger!

1. Know the rules and the criteria before you begin.

If you are setting the criteria, here are some suggested guidelines, which may be helpful, depending on your particular contest. Ask ahead about scores sheets, and be ready to recommend an appropriate set of criteria.

Taste 2 points
Smell 2 points
Presentation 2 points
Execution 2 points
Creativity 1 point
Use of Equipment 1 point
Selection of Ingredients 1 point
Relevancy 1 point

Obviously, it must taste good enough to entice you to a second bite, but don’t.

Our nose is important and will also determine freshness, properly cooked, seasoned, etc.

We eat with our eyes. The chocolate chip pie so beautifully decorated shined in this.

Was the recipe followed correctly, food done properly, undercooked, overcooked, etc. Is it cold enough, hot enough or assembled correctly?

Sometimes the use of a few simple ingredients can turn out a marvel, as in the creative “trash can” pork.

Use of Equipment
The cleverness of a grill attached to car for the tailgating theme or the trash can pork were great examples of a good use of equipment.

Selection of ingredients
Is something “missing” in the dish or are their too many ingredients fighting each other?
Editing a recipe is an art in itself.

How well does the food go with the venue? If it’s an apple contest, are apples the star of the recipe or just an afterthought?

The 31st Annual Music City Arabian & Open Dressage Show will be held Sept 17-19, 2010. Hope to see a few of you there at the barn party. And, next year, I want a T-Shirt.

Wouldn’t it be fun to be a professional food judge? Tell me dear readers, what would your ideal food judging contest be?


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