Here’s what it’s like being a judge at the 38th annual Kitchen Kettle Village Rhubarb Baking Contest | Life & Culture
What makes a person qualified to judge a food competition?
Is it having experience with the specific food, or is it enough to simply contain the necessary enthusiasm to face plate after plate?
At the 38th annual Kitchen Kettle Village Rhubarb Baking Contest in Intercourse, I arrived feeling the latter mindset, and I feel as though I left the hallowed grounds with the former.
The dessert competition was just one part of a weekend’s worth of rhubarb-related events at the annual Rhubarb Festival, including a rhubarb race car derby and, of course, the promenade of the freshly crowned rhubarb king and queen.
The rhubarb dessert competition, however — the headlining event of the festival — is where the weak are culled and legends are born, in the tastiest way possible.
I arrived at Kitchen Kettle Village at 8:45 a.m. Saturday, decked in a reddish band T-shirt and green pants, as the officials requested that the judges try to dress in rhubarbesque colors. I ate nothing before arriving — and after looking at the long table filled with over 30 distinct kinds of desserts, I was happy with that decision.
The baking competition is split into three categories, and then the best of each category competes to determine the grand champion. Though I had hoped to land in one of the straightforward categories of “Cake” or “Pie,” I instead found myself in the “Other Desserts” category.
Here is a good place to mention my specific credentials that landed me in this particular scenario, which is to say, none to speak of. I love desserts, and I believe that they love me back, and that is pretty much it. I have never been a baker, but merely an admirer of the craft. I very well could have kept this a secret, at least among my fellow judges, but we were required at the onset of the competition to give a little intro spiel on how we got to these prized seats.
I had to say, “My name is Kevin Stairiker, and I have no real qualifications to be here, I am just hungry.” It is better to be truthful, and from that moment on, I decided that I would be silently representing the silent majority group of “People Who Don’t Necessarily Have An Immaculate Palate but Are Just Happy to Be Here.”
Appearance, taste and texture
The other nine judges each brought various skill sets and social cachet, with some other newbies and returning judges among them. The 2022 competition was the first since 2019, as COVID-19-related restrictions made it unfeasible in 2020 and 2021.
The competition serves as a benefit for Lancaster Farmland Trust, and members of the organization were on hand to slice and serve bite-size portions from the beautiful spread of desserts. Each plate featured two or three different desserts, with a corresponding number so that we could neatly give our scores on separate pieces of paper. Questions varied between desserts, but my fellow “Other Desserts” judges and I were tasked with judging the appearance, taste and texture of each selection.
This became a psychological conundrum by the second plate.
If “Other Dessert” simply meant “Not Cake or Pie,” then participants were encumbered only by the limits of their respective imaginations. For example, it was not outside the realm of possibility to be served a plate featuring: 1. A tiny piece of cobbler; 2. A bite-size brownie; and 3. What could charitably be called a (delicious-tasting) pile of pinkish goop. No matter the category, I quickly learned that the 38th annual Kitchen Kettle Village Rhubarb Baking Competition is absolutely not the place to bring weak stuff.
I tried to adhere to a strict routine for each dessert — take a bite, think about it, clean off my fork, take a swig of water and then move on to the next one. Whereas the “Cake” judges conferred among themselves, checking taste profiles and the like, my group largely remained insular except for the beginning and end of the competition. It was not so much that I didn’t want to talk to my fellow judges, it was more that the mounting rhubarb intake eventually started to cloud my brain and make it difficult to rationally convey my thoughts aloud.
Some desserts tasted as though the bakers felt constrained by the rhubarb, only to liven it up with cherry and strawberry flavors. In others, the rhubarb shined as the star, and it was difficult not to intrinsically pride these over fellow competitors. The rhubarb itself is such a humble vegetable that it deserves to play lead at least once a year, right?
The tasting portion required a generous hustle, as not only was the freshness of the desserts dissipating with each passing minute, but it was also 90 degrees outside and many of the desserts ultimately wouldn’t withstand that harsh, continuous beating from the sun.
Some 16 desserts later, our winning “Other Dessert” was a delectable rhubarb cheesecake bar, created by Carol Horst. Lancaster Farmland Trust Chairman Larry Shirk was tasked with tabulating ballots, and both competitors and readers alike should know that Shirk performed his job with a seriousness that I can only compare to a person counting ballots for a presidential election. I half-expected a pink plume of smoke to rise from the building to announce the winner.
The grand champion dessert ended up being obvious to myself and my fellow judges alike, an incredible strawberry rhubarb angel cake, created by Kitchen Kettle’s own Diann Stoltzfus, who has a variety of roles in everything from food services to administrative tasks.
As is customary at competition’s end, each dessert was sliced into pieces and sold to visitors at the rhubarb festival. According to Lisa Horn, Kitchen Kettle Village’s resident “Director of Fun,” every single piece of dessert sold out on Saturday, generating $1,084 alone for the Lancaster Farmland Trust.
For Kristy Aurand, Community Action Partnership chief development officer and a returning judge at the competition since 2016 — who hadn’t even eaten rhubarb before her first festival — it’s a day to look forward to every year.
“Well obviously, the tasty desserts are great,” Aurand says by phone the day after the competition. “I also think it’s really cool that all the proceeds go to the Farmland Trust. Obviously it’s a really cool nonprofit partnership. And I just love the sense of camaraderie; it’s just a really fun experience. I think we take it all really seriously, which is funny because it’s a dessert competition at the end of the day. It’s just great meeting the other judges and having a fun morning and feeling that sense of community throughout the whole event.”
After eating 20 pieces of dessert at 10 in the morning, I stepped out, blinking, into the oppressive heat. A man on stilts holding a pink pool noodle fashioned into a piece of rhubarb ambled past me, perfectly complementing my complete and utter food daze. I wouldn’t eat again until dinner that night, and even then, it was a half-hearted meal.
Being trusted with the honor of selecting the best rhubarb dessert among a sea of them was a privilege that I won’t soon forget. If I am so lucky as to be called upon again to serve this task, it will be a true honor.
That being said, please do not bring rhubarb anywhere close to me for another few months, just in case.