The first e-mail -- from Melissa Cournoyer a.k.a. Daphne TartNSweet, First Mate of The Nautilus, Colorado Rogues -- seemed innocent enough. "We will be hosting our annual chili cook-off on April 10, 2010 and are looking for judges," it said. "We seek three to five hearty carnivorous souls unafraid of beans, spice and possible foul winds."
A pirate reenactment social club? Free chili? I e-mailed Melissa and told her I was game.
When I showed up at EZ Pickin's, a dark bar in a strip mall at 1950 South Holly Street where the jukebox is full of Patsy Cline and the regulars arrive before 3 p.m., I was expecting pirates -- eye patches, wooden legs, parrots, the whole bit. Instead, I found Trekkies, a man in a dress chewing on a cigar and a gorilla rocking a baby.
I was one of three judges; the other two, Mike and Dave, were more qualified in that both of them are chefs who actually cook chili instead of just eat it, like me. The three of us ordered drinks -- EZ Pickin's pours everything from Miller in bottles to sweet Woodchuck cider -- and were given a rundown of the rules by Barry Ludwick a.k.a. Lorrance Ohm, Captain of The Nautilus, one of the Rogues' eight "ships." Rule No. 1: Judge each chili on its own merit. Rule No. 2: Pace yourself.
We were to assign eight different chilis a score of zero to ten in seven different categories, including color, aroma, taste and spiciness. The three of us sat at a thick wooden table beneath a sign that read, "Unattended Children Will Be Sold as Slaves," and were brought small cardboard containers of chili, two at a time. We tasted each one and scored them in silence, cleansing our palates with cider and flour tortillas in between.
The chilis were varied. Some were runny and full of beans. Others were chunky and meaty -- more like sloppy joes than chili. One was so bland, it tasted like eating hamburger soup. Another was so hot that it made my forehead sweat.
I'm pretty sure it was that chili that a bar regular wearing a gray ponytail and leather jacket was referring to when he approached the judges' table, mid-cookoff. He'd been in the back room, where the "ships" set up their chili for tasting. "The other stuff is really good," he told us. "But the stuff in the little shot glasses is fuckin' screaming!"
Once the tasting was done (I gave high marks to the "fuckin' screaming" chili), we headed to the back room for the "presentations" -- a key part of the Rogues' cookoff. We were equipped with score sheets that listed four categories: theme interpretation, costuming, decorations and entertainment. The theme of this year's event was "Civilizations." It was deliberately vague, Barry told us, and some of the ships had indeed interpreted it loosely.
Each ship was allotted five minutes to present their chili. One chose a redneck theme; they dressed up in overalls and undershirts, shot a stuffed rabbit with a Nerf gun and made jokes about incest before offering the judges chili served in empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans. Another chose a more serious Dia de los Muertos theme. One group pretended to be "cyber pirates"; from behind computer screens, they explained that they were pirating music. Then they played Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer."
The last ship chose a Star Trek theme. Dressed like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, they launched into an elaborate presentation that included video clips of the real Star Trek, as well as the Reading Rainbow theme song. At the end of their presentation, they ordered some "Gagh" from a restaurant called Gagh Hut. Naturally, it was beamed onto the ship by a Gagh delivery man. The Trekkies beamed back a tip.
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Turns out the Gagh was just Hormel chili heated up in a crock pot. Ignorant of that fact, we three judges voted it the third-best chili out of all eight entries. The fuckin' screaming chili, made by the Lady Sinister ship, took first place. The Trekkies, who belong to the Sun God ship, won best presentation. There was a tie for Most Unique Chili between Lady Sinister and the Raging Saint Mae ship, and the People's Choice award went to The Harbor ship.
As we were leaving, Melissa approached me, still wearing the sparkly dress and face paint that accompanied her ship's Dia de los Muertos theme. "So can we count on you for next year?" she asked. "Definitely," I said.