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How the chili cook-off was won (by Westword)

Everyone has a recipe for chili.

Lady Bird Johnson's recipe called for two to six generous dashes of liquid hot sauce. Kenny Rogers uses tomato paste and finely chopped jalapeños. Bobby Flay adds dark beer and semi-sweet chocolate, habaneros and toasted cumin.

Chili is a dish that can be thrown together in a single pot over a wood fire or carefully crafted from a recipe honed through years of tinkering and tasting. It can be served hot or cold, topped with cheese and sour cream in a ceramic dish or naked and greasy in a Styrofoam bowl.

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Last Friday, I served two gallons of my very own Medical Chilijuana in tiny plastic tasting cups during a Denver Press Club benefit for the non-profit Women's Bean Project. The 21-year-old organization uses the money to push its programs teaching job skills to women who have been impoverished or unemployed.

I was one of 25 "celebrity" chefs competing for the vaunted golden crockpot. Although I've entered more than a dozen chili cookoffs over the past twelve or so years, I went into this one with some trepidation: The recipes I've used have all been my own, but they've never carried me to victory. My only claim to fame was a second-place honor I took in 2001 at a cookoff at Hudson Gardens. And I have no cultural claim to chili — or, more specifically, chile peppers. I didn't grow up eating them; I don't have an old recipe handed down through the generations; I don't hail from Texas or New Mexico.

But that's okay. Chili doesn't need you to claim it — because it claims you.

The first time I got involved with chili was in 1997, when I was asked to judge a cookoff at the Boulder County Fair. I had no idea what I was in for, no notion that by the end of the day, my tastebuds would have melted into the sides of my smoldering cheeks and my guts would be roiling like a Hawaiian volcano.

But something happened after that. The capsaicin — the chemical component in peppers that causes that familiar burning sensation — worked its way into my blood and began coursing through my veins, and I started to crave the very thing that had hurt me.

Vampire-bitten, I began researching chili and peppers — anchos, poblanos, pasillas and jalapeños — and recipes, trying to understand how and why this simple, fiery food has ensnared the hearts and stomachs of so many people in this country.

Ironically, the modern history of chili cookoffs began in 1967 with three other newspapermen: Wick Fowler, a longtime north Texas journalist; Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert; and New York humorist H. Allen Smith. Fowler challenged Smith to a duel after Smith berated Texas and its chili in an article; Tolbert organized the whole thing in Terlingua, Texas, a ghost town near Big Bend National Park.

The contest ended in a tie, but a tradition was born. There are now two chili cook-off organizations in the United States, the Chili Appreciation Society International, which still holds its annual championship in Terlingua, and the International Chili Society —the group I joined in the late 1990s — which hosts its yearly super bowl in Nevada. Both organizations sanction dozens of smaller events around the country each year.

While everyone may have a chili recipe, not everyone's recipe is welcome in these clubs. The rules of both call for Texas-style red chili, meaning you use meat, chile and whatever spices and vegetables you want. No pasta. No rice. No beans.

Beyond that, there are unspoken rules — rules you can learn only from the inside out. The winners of the ICS cookoffs I've participated in dice their meat — typically chuck roast — into uniform quarter-inch cubes, and they make sure that any vegetables, tomatoes, onions and garlic are ground or cooked down so as to be nearly invisible. They use a lot of chili pepper, a lot of salt, and they make sure their concoctions are as red as a brick.

But the rest of the formula for success is a secret — and one that the insular and sometimes garrulous and conniving world of chili championships is slow to reveal. Ask a chef what he uses in his chili and he's likely to say just about anything — anything but the truth. Cooks are known to mislabel their spice cases, peel the labels off altogether or display fake spices to throw off any competitors who might be spying.

For many years, my secret ingredient was chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Just a small amount adds a spicy hot, smoky taste to even the biggest pot of con carne. But I have a new secret ingredient now, one I've revealed to only two people. That way, if I die, they'll know how to make the chili for my funeral.

I used that secret ingredient at the Denver Press Club, and contrary to the name that tops my recipe, Medical Chilijuana, it wasn't pot. It could have been, because a number of the people who paid $20 each to support the Women's Bean Project and to taste the entries proferred their state-issued medical marijuana licenses. (The group raised $1,100, by the way, which will be used to teach eleven women how to operate forklifts.)

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