Last Sunday, I spent several hours tasting oils. Olive oils, of course, but also nut oils, seed oils, and plenty of weird, mostly crappy flavored oils. My stomach still hasn't fully recovered.
I had selected to be a judge for the annual Good Food Awards, which hands out prestige, stickers and some dope-looking medals to small, sustainable food producers from around the country. There are categories that span just about everything you'd want to buy (short of produce) — cheese, charcuterie, beer, cider, chocolate, and several other things I can't think of right now. It's a collaboration between the Seedling Projects, an SF non-profit, and a group of grocery stores that includes Bi-Rite and Market Hall here in the Bay (plus lots of other stores in New York and whatnot). I've covered the awards ceremony itself for the past couple of years, but this was my first time in the judge's chair.
It was weird. I mean, blind tasting cooking oil all day isn't exactly an everyday experience, and it isn't exactly pleasant, but being a part of such a huge competition was also weird in and of itself.
The organizers try to bring in a diverse set of judges for all of their categories, which means that each judging group ends up with a mix of industry professionals and amateurs who are simply good eaters (read: me). We are not really experts at tasting for nuance in specific food products. We just like to eat and taste food, and we like what we like.
In my tasting pod, there was a specialty foods importer who specializes in culinary oils, a buyer for Williams-Sonoma, a recipe developer/food writer/science nerd (Kenji Lopez-Alt for those who care), and me, a person who has attended one olive oil tasting and who has casually tried many different oils with a publicist who herself works with a lot of olive oil folks.
Anyway, Kenji and I ended up agreeing that is was super hard to separate our personal preferences in oils from what is "technically" a good oil. Yes, there were a couple pretty terrible oils in the tasting, but overall, a lot of them were just fine. What separates the "just fine" oils from the actually "good" ones? I still have no clue.
My hope (and I think the intent) is that the professional tasters and the amateurs will balance themselves out for a good picture of what the public classifies as delicious.
But it makes me wonder about the validity of all food competitions. How much of it comes down to the personal preference of the judges? I'm guessing, jadedly, that the answer is -- a lot.