Not too Mean, Not too Nice, Just Right: How to be a Good SCA A&S Judge

I’ve had a few opportunities to judge local arts and sciences competitions lately, as well as to be judged at our Kingdom arts and sciences championship, and it’s caused me to think a lot about how this process works. I find the experience of being judged to be incredibly valuable, and I think a lot of that has been I’ve had very good judges (especially recently!); I spent some time thinking about what judges have done that has been useful to me and looked for ways to incorporate it into how I judge entries. I’ve previously (on my old blog) written about how to prepare to compete in the arts and sciences, now I’d like to share my thoughts on the other side of competition.

It’s easy to be judgmental, but it’s hard to be a judge. When you are approached to be a judge at a local competition, you are being tasked with something pretty mighty: you are going to assess another person’s best work, and you have the potential to dramatically shape how they approach their next project. Your job as a judge is not to show off your knowledge, to advance your personal agenda or pet theories, or even to critique a piece. Not surprisingly, my professional experience as a teacher has really colored how I view all of this — judging is exactly like grading! You have to be fair, you have to be honest, and you have to be kind. It’s not about assigning a score, it’s about assessing the quality of the work against the established standard and providing meaningful feedback to the creator. Here are some of my strategies for how to be a great judge:

  • First and foremost, be courteous. True courtesy and honor are the best parts of the Society — be a model of our shared virtues.
  • Go in with the right mindset. See above! The thought that should be uppermost in your mind is that it is your job to promote the arts and sciences. How can you best do that in your role as judge?
  • Give the entrant their due. Read their documentation (in advance if possible), listen to their whole presentation, and give them your full attention. I find it helps me to take notes during presentations. (I do the same thing when my students present in class.) I write down what I like, and what questions I have. This helps me give specific comments later.
  • Ask good questions. Questioning is an incredibly important intellectual strategy that I think can be easily overlooked. The questions you ask should allow the entrant to demonstrate their knowledge (they should not be “gotcha!” questions), or help them consider aspects of their work more deeply. Some ideas to get you started: What was your main goal with this entry? What do you feel like was your biggest success? What was your most significant learning? What was one challenge that you faced and how did you overcome it? What do you have planned next? What will you do differently on your next project as a result of this one?
  • BE. HONEST. Being courteous does not mean you are not allowed to point out areas for improvement — your comments must go beyond “great job” and a pat on the head. If it helps, think less about what they did wrong and more about what they could improve for next time, and use that to frame what you say. Normally, here is where this type of guide would tell you to try a “compliment sandwich,” but I happen to think that isn’t actually that helpful. Imagine this is the feedback you get from a judge: “I like the colors. Your embroidery needs a lot of work. Good job using wool thread instead of cotton.” The sandwich approach doesn’t actually soften the blow much, and these comments don’t help you get better.Here’s a hypothetical example of what I think is a better approach: let’s say I’m judging an entry of delicious and perfectly made suckets that use grapefruit peels. The maker consulted a few websites written by SCAdians, some of which included period recipes (although they didn’t use one specific recipe in their recreation), and they read The Medieval Kitchen and Early French Cookery for some general background information.
    • Here is an example of the type of comments I’d be likely to give them: “These were really delicious, and making suckets is a hard skill to master, which makes it all the more impressive. I was also happy to see that you started with some period recipes, and the secondary sources you looked at are both ones that I trust. Have you tried other types of citrus peels? Grapefruits date to after the SCA’s time period — I can help you find resources on what kinds of peels would be more historical. Now that you’ve gotten good at the general process, your next step could be to research this more deeply, then pick one specific historical recipe to recreate, or a set of them (maybe from different time periods?) to compare, depending on what your overall goals are.” Yes, that’s long. Yes, the forms don’t give you a lot of room. But if I were a competitor, I’d find that so much more useful — the feedback is all specific and actionable, and I think that’s essential.
  • Connect. Give entrants your contact information so they can talk with you more — this is a great way to mentor or work with someone with shared interests. Talk personally with entrants after the competition is over. Just as I would with my students, I find that I tend to say things that praise effort and hard work, encouraging growth rather than “genius;” this can help competitors see the day of competition as one step on their journey to A&S excellence instead of the culmination of something. Also, praising effort is much harder for someone to argue with than other forms of compliments! Here’s one frame if you aren’t used to this: “I hope you had a great experience today! You should feel proud — competing is hard work and takes a lot of bravery. I was really impressed with [a specific aspect of their project, display, or presentation] — it’s clear you’ve worked hard. I’ll look forward to seeing your next project.”
  • Spread the wordfame of the competitors. Tell people about the cool projects you got to judge, and what you liked about them. Introduce competitors to other people who share their interests, and who can help them with research. Shine the spotlight on someone!

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means. Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments. If you found this list useful, please share the link. Also, if you are interested in publishing a version of this in a branch newsletter, use the contact form to get in touch with me and I’d be happy to send you a more usable version.

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Marzipan: my go-to dessert for every feast

Marzipan is delicious, relatively easy to make (if you allow yourself modern cheats), vegan and gluten free, historical, and fancy: these factors combine to make it my top choice when planning a feast. You can sculpt it, add colors, or arrange some other sweets (I’m partial to dried fruits and candied ginger as shown here) to serve:

  

My basic marzipan recipe that I’ve been using for years:

  • One part by weight blanched slivered almonds
  • One part by weight sugar
  • Rose water

Grind the almonds and sugar together in a food processor until the almonds are very fine. Add rose water a spoonful at a time, grinding continuously, until the marzipan forms a paste. Continue grinding until it is a smooth and uniform as possible. 

Marzipan is also wonderful to take to events for a sweet treat or to share at a potluck. 

Yesterday I made the marzipan pictured above as desserts for an Italian feast. It all got devoured and I even caught a friend of mine filling his napkin with it to take home!

Pastry from Scappi

My Laurel, Master Refr, is the head cook for a feast on Saturday, and I’m helping him with a couple of things. Somewhat humorously, Refr HATES making pie crust, so I am (not surprisingly) helping with that part. Here is the pie recipe he is working from, which is from book five of Scappi:

“165.  Various ways to make tuna pies en croute

“Get a skinned tuna belly cut up into whatever sized pieces you like, and let them site an hour in the above spice mixture and salt.  Put them into a pastry shell made as directed in recipe 154, of sieved flour, with prunes, dried visciola cherries and sauteed onions in it.  Cover the pie over.  Bake it in an oven. When it is done, serve it hot.” (Then it gives a few variants on this theme.)
The pie crust part of recipe 154:
“That shell should be made of sieved flour and water with no salt, and should be quite firm.  If you want it to be made better, put eggs and butter into it; in Lent, though, you do not use eggs or butter, but only plain water.”
I wasn’t able to find a redaction online for this particular pie crust recipe, though I did find Maestro Eduardo’s version of a pastry-cake from Scappi that has a yeast-leavened dough that is rolled out very thin, almost like pastry. Although they are obviously different in function, the tortiglione dough is similar in that it also contains butter and egg (like the suggested additions to the fish pie pastry).
…Yeah, okay, even I can admit that that’s a reach 🙂 But bear with me, these proportions actually work okay and I’ll explain why.
This is the version of this pastry that I’m trying for this weekend:
1 lb whole wheat pastry flour
1 lb all-purpose unbleached white flour
Generous pinch salt
4 ounces butter
3 whole eggs
1 1/2 cups water
In a large stand mixer, mix together half of the total amount of flour and the salt. Add the butter and eggs and beat on low speed until mixed, then add the remaining flour and mix until combined. It will look crumbly at this stage. Add water and mix until dough is even and smooth.
Divide into four portions. Break off an egg-sized piece of dough from each portion, then form remainder into a coffin (crust) like you are making a pinch-pot. Roll out the reserved portions and use as lids.
This dough handles well for raising coffins. It will be quite tough to a modern palate when it’s baked (lots of water, very little fat), but in my experience it’s very hard to get a functional coffin using butter and eggs in the dough (rather than lard or suet for the fat). I will most likely make a version of this for the high table that doubles the butter and eggs to make a more tender finished product.
Hopefully I’ll have an update on how this went after Saturday!

Photos of my KASC Displays and Entries

Photos of my displays / entries from An Tir’s 2015 Kingdom Arts and Sciences Championship:

My display for my research paper on women in York guilds
My display for my research paper on women in York guilds

 

Pigments, ink, and paint-making supplies
Pigments, ink, and paint-making supplies

 

The paints I made (plus some modern gold paint for comparison)
The paints I made (plus some modern gold paint for comparison) 

 

Complete painting display
Complete painting display

 

All three of the paintings I completed side by side by side
All three of the paintings I completed side by side by side

 

This is the second complete practice painting that I finished. It has my dog in place of the hound from the original, and other than the gold paint I used paints I made myself.
This is the second complete practice painting that I finished. It has my dog in place of the hound from the original, and other than the gold paint I used paints I made myself.

 

The finished miniature, done using historical paints on parchment.
The finished miniature, done using historical paints on parchment.

 

First part of my pie display
First part of my pie display

Closer image of some of my pie display elements.
Closer image of some of my pie display elements.

Another part of my pie display, with all my samples.
Another part of my pie display, with all my samples.

Close-up of one of the historical flours I used
Close-up of one of the historical flours I used

 

Basin and towel for handwashing. We are civilized people!
Basin and towel for handwashing. We are civilized people!

 

I made a pie for the populace to taste, too.
I made a pie for the populace to taste, too.

 

This is the finished pie that I served my judges on Saturday. The one I had for Sunday looked even better, but I didn't get pictures of it.
This is the finished pie that I served my judges on Saturday. The one I had for Sunday looked even better, but I didn’t get pictures of it.

 

This is a photo I took before the event of one of my test pies, showing details of the filling.
This is a photo I took before the event of one of my test pies, showing details of the filling.

Watch my KAS final presentation

If you missed seeing me present my pie entry on Sunday, now you can play along at home thanks to the video by Russ Gilman-Hunt:

Part 1

Part 2

During the Q&A portion I explained more about some of my recreation choices (such as how I chose the spices I used), about pie crusts generally, and where I hope to take this project in the future. Watching this now, I see soooooo much detail I could have added. I felt so constrained by the time limit, which was frustrating. I do wish I had talked more about my process; I think I didn’t give myself enough credit for how much work went into mastering making this one particular pie. But overall I felt incredibly good about my presentation, and I even (shockingly!) don’t hate watching this on film.

And if you want to hear everything I have to say on the subjects of medieval pie, 14th century English cooking, the intersection of food and social class, and how to choose ingredients that are as authentic as possible, clearly the only answer is to take a class from me at an event 🙂

My Kingdom Arts and Sciences documentation

Photo by Morgan Donner
Photo by Morgan Donner
PDF copies of my research paper and documentation for my two projects are up in the files section. Now you too can experience the thrill of reading 64 pages about medieval pies, or the wonder of graphs that help us interpret the lives of medieval women, or the frisson of fear of knowing that I have a lot of toxic pigments in my garage right now.

Here are the abstracts from each of these, to get you a little excited:

Early 16th century French miniature: For this entry I aimed to replicate one of the full-page miniatures found in an illuminated manuscript originally commissioned for a Dominican cloister in Poissy, France around 1510. This work was based in large part on my close study of the manuscript itself and my analysis of the painting techniques used within it. I supplemented this with research into similar manuscripts from the same time period and place, especially ones which are incomplete (which give clues to the techniques used to produce their illuminations). My main interest in completing this project was to practice using more historical materials and techniques in my scribal work. I made my own ink and paints and documented the processes I used for each. The finished painting was completed on parchment using paints I made from period pigments or modern chemically similar substitutes.

Late 14th century pie: For this entry I prepared a meat pie based on a recipe from Forme of Cury, a culinary manuscript attributed to Richard II’s master cooks and believed to have been compiled around 1390. The pie I chose to recreate is representative of trends in foods consumed by high-status individuals in England during the high medieval and late medieval periods. Building on research I did for a pie crust project presented last year, the crust was prepared using stone ground and sieved flour from heirloom rivet and bread wheat grown in mixed fields in England. The filling contains three different types of birds: squab, chicken, and quail (as a stand-in for passerine songbirds, which are largely illegal to kill in the US), as well as eggs, currants, and spices. The consumption of birds was a sign of wealth during this time period, so it is fitting that a royal pie contain multiple types of desirable (and expensive) birds. The other filling ingredients would have been imported to England, adding considerably to their cost. This is also a very labor intensive food; multiple steps and some specialized techniques are required to produce this pie, which is a further indication of the social context in which this pie would have existed.

Women’s Work: Through an examination of archived medieval documents, this paper presents evidence for women in guilds and trades in York during the reigns of Edward I through III. I examined digital transcriptions of primary source documents, including the York Register of Freemen and the Ebor Cause Papers, extracting data about female names and occupations. By analyzing these data, I was able to compare my findings to those of other researchers who have written about women as workers in other areas of medieval Europe. Overall, I found that the situation for women in York was consistent with that for women in other medieval European cities: while women did participate (sometimes significantly) in wage-work, women’s participation was typically limited to certain types of jobs in certain industries, and women rarely achieved full guild membership.

Again, to read the full papers, hop over to files.