I had 40 samples of Back-to-the-’80s-style chili Saturday morning. But that wasn’t enough. I went back and tasted eight of them again.
While the Snowdown Chili Cook-off is all about fun, when it’s time to select winners, we judges get as serious as a dozen renegades can while under the influence.
It’s true. Grapes, celery and bottles of water provided to clear the palate are merely props. Veteran judges swear by beer, Bloody Marys and tequila to clear anything still alive on the tongue between spoonfuls.
What is it like judging the annual cook-off? It’s the most fun that you can have with a plastic spoon and Styrofoam cup.
Few among Saturday’s hungry crowd tried every entry before casting their votes for the People’s Choice winners. But like me, all tasters had their favorites in this non-sanctioned competition. Similar to judging figure skating, no matter the compulsory stuff, choosing the top chili is still subjective.
Being a cooking contestant is serious business if you enter one of the hundreds of chili cook-offs sanctioned by the International Chili Society. The rules are clear: No pre-cooking of anything, although prepping and treating of meat is OK. Red chili is defined as “any kind of meat or combination of meats cooked with red chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients, with the exception of beans and pasta.”
Substitute green in place of red, if you want the ICS official rules for chile verde.
Durango’s Snowdown Chili Cook-Off is a non-sanctioned competition. Like beans? No problem. You can add anything to your pot of chili that blows your shirt up. After all, who is to say what’s right when none of us can even agree on how to spell what’s in the pot?
Then there are the color and texture questions. Should chili meat be shredded, ground or cut into chunks?
Midwest transplants seem to like ground beef, tomatoes and beans – kidney, pinto, navy, black beans or a combination of all four. Most of the recent winners in the red chili class have included beans in their chili offerings.
Pasta in chili is another kettle of fish. In all the years I’ve judged cook-offs, I can’t think of a single winning chili that included pasta.
Speaking of fish, remember the recent Snowdown when judges sampled salmon chili?
Most of the judges have lived to tell stories about chili which showcased elk, deer, pheasant, quail, turkey or peanut butter as a key ingredient.
I think cooks ought to be free to put whatever they want in their chili. I confess that if I had a tough piece of game in my freezer, I’d dice it, pair it with beef, sear it in a hot skillet and throw it in the pot.
However, if I wanted to take home the top prize for chile verde, I’d stick with traditional ingredients and keep it simple. First, I’d have to tie, gag and disable frequent winner Charles Rigby so he’s MIA Saturday morning. I’ve studied his green chili and even managed to snarf his recipe, but as he says, “You can use my recipe, but it won’t be my chili.”
Some of the judges are past winners. Others are simply good cooks. I am among the proud, skilled few who fall into the subset “fearless eaters.”
Additionally, if I were a betting woman, I’d do OK. Often I’m able to pick the winners, even though it’s a double-blind contest. Likewise, my scoring of salsa entries is usually on the money.
There are exceptions. The mango salsa entry I tried last Saturday won nothing, despite good integration of ingredients and top-notch balance of flavors. I gave it a high score, but most of the judges thought it was too far out of the box.
Traditional red and green chilis win, especially when ingredients are uniform, the chili is aromatic, flavors are balanced and the sample looks good. Still, I like some out-of-the-box entries. They’re creative and they offer a fresh turn on good ingredients that may be underappreciated.
Some judges say adding chocolate or cinnamon to red chili is plain weird. Others are merely curious about the origin of the recipe.
There were years the chili leaned toward barbecue, offering sweet yet spicy undertones. In other years, we saw chili featuring diced potatoes, green bell peppers, corn, tofu and even hummus.
Evidently 2016 is the year of the carrot. I’m not talking about finely diced carrots, as in a mire poix, but chunks of carrot big enough to assault the beef.
If I were the High Priestess of the Snowdown Chili Cook-Off, I’d add the following category: Out of the Box and Other Kinds of Chili.
Then the judges, beers in hand, would have to duke it out over what’s weird and what’s not. Every out-of-the-box contestant would go home with a prize, just like the days when my kids came home from the science fair.
Speaking of science fairs, there is something to be said about the quality of chili that has had time to fester. Everyone knows that three day old chili is the best, yet we have no prize for the “Best Festered.” We’d have to change the rules, of course, and start cooking on Wednesday, right after the Fashion Do’s and Don’ts.
If you are thinking about Snowdown 2017 and entering your mom’s Cincinnati chili, shoot for the “Out of the Box” chili class, where anything goes.
But here’s a warning: Anyone caught sneaking a single leaf of kale into the Exhibit Hall will be handcuffed and arrested.
1. Jim McVean
2. Kim Tracey
3. Megan McCoy
1. Charles Rigby
2. Pat Page
3. Terry Stunberg
1. Betty Door
2. Jenny Gross
1. Rodger Padilla
2. Joe Gunter
3. Jim McVean
People’s Choice Green
1. Charles Gonzales
2. Pat Page
3. Brian McLachlan
People’s Choice Red
1. Henry Gonzales
2. Kim Tracy
3. Scott Sallee