For the past few years, I served as a judge at both the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon chili cookoffs held each July in Shelbyville. I always dreamed of entering, but it’s actually a pretty complicated and expensive process. This year, though, I took the plunge.
As you know if you followed my Facebook posts, it didn’t turn out the way I had hoped. I wasn’t happy with my entry and thus wasn’t surprised when I didn’t place last night, and when I got the chance to see my judges’ comments today there were some negative comments – at least one of which seemed to be the exact opposite of what I thought was wrong with the chili.
Anyway, I had a good time, at least before seeing those judges’ comments this morning, but I was also dog tired. Going into the process, my original plan had been to only cook on Friday, and then – if I happened to get lucky Friday – I might choose to cook on Saturday. During the evening yesterday, I considered coming back and cooking today even if I didn’t place, just because I was enjoying it. But I was frustrated with my final result, and, as I say, dog tired. Even before the final results were announced, I packed up the canopy tent I had been loaned rather than leaving it on-site (they had told us we could leave tents overnight and there would be security). I knew I wouldn’t be cooking the next day.
I laid down on the couch as soon as I got home and fell asleep until 12:30. Then I went up and got into bed. At 1:30, I started thinking about the leftover propane cans still in my car. What if I slept late in the morning? How hot would my car get? Would the propane tanks explode, destroying my car right in the apartment parking lot? I got up, went downstairs and brought the propane inside.
Anyway, here are some random observations.
* Chili cookoffs are expensive. For an International Chili Society-sanctioned cookoff, you have to join ICS, over and above the entry fee of the cookoff. Of course, you’ve also got ingredients – not only for the batch you prepare at the cookoff but for all of the ones you prepare in your kitchen getting ready. I ordered most of my herbs and spices from my favorite mail-order house (although I’ve got quite a bit left for use in regular cooking, so that’s some benefit). I was able to borrow a Coleman stove and a canopy tent, but I ended up buying a cooler (which I needed anyway) and a little folding table (which I thought would be a good thing to have).
The ICS membership is annual, so if I compete next year I’ll have to renew about that time. It would be nice if I could find another cookoff to compete in between now and then, to leverage a little bit of my membership fee. There aren’t any too close by, unfortunately.
* The atmosphere at the cookoff was wonderful. Yes, there was serious competition going on. Some of the cooks who came to Shelbyville from as far away as Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana and Mississippi were trying to place so that they could qualify for the ICS World Championship in Reno, Nevada, in October. They were serious about their cooking, but that didn’t keep them from being friendly, helpful and encouraging.
* Wes Carlson of Illinois, who was the ICS world champion for green chili in 2004, came back again this year to serve as head judge and work with local organizer Calvin Cannon in putting on the event. I had worked with Wes as a judge last year. When I raised my hand to identify myself as a rookie at the cook’s meeting last night. Several people yelled at me about salt. I honestly thought at the time that they were joking – that maybe it was some sort of tradition to try to trick first-timers into over-salting their chili. I do like salty foods – too much for my own good – but last year, one of the batches I tasted as a judge was so salty even I didn’t care for it. I had decided prior to the cookoff that I would have enough salt, but not too much.
But when Wes stopped by to check on me later, he actually mentioned salt again – and I could tell that he was serious. Even so, I thought I had it covered, and told him so.
Anyway, one of the judges’ comments I got: “not enough salt.” That may have also figured in to the judge who called my chili “bland.” I did not think it was bland; if anything, I though I’d gone overboard with a couple of added flavors. I added a little lime juice right at the very end of cooking just to wake things up, for example, and thought it might have been too much. I wasn’t happy with my entry, but I didn’t think it was bland by any stretch of the imagination.
* Another judges’ comment: “too thick.” This one, I’ll own up to. Part of the problem is that I was only entered in one category – red chili. I should have waited longer than I did to start my chili, and for a while I could not get the flame on the Coleman stove as low as I really wanted it without it going out. I eventually compensated by putting the dutch oven off-center rather than directly over the burner. I added water to the chili at several points to thin it out, but apparently not enough – and perhaps I should have added a little less masa flour at the end.
By the way, one of the other competitors saw me adding the masa and said she’d switched to rice flour as a thickener because it was flavorless. But to me, the taste of masa is actually a part of what I expect in chili.
* Back when I envisioned cooking in a chili cookoff, I thought I might try to recruit one of my nephews or a kid from church to be a second pair of hands. I really wish I had done that. I had to make about five trips from my car to my site unloading, carrying heavy items like the canopy tent and the cooler, and the same thing loading up at the end of the evening. Also, at one point Wes invited me to be a judge for the green chili category (which I had not entered), but I didn’t want to leave my chili unattended. Most of the other competitors had some sort of help – spouses, kids, friends, or so on. If I cook next year, I’m going to try to recruit a helper.
* This morning, I stopped by to get a few photos for the paper and also to check on those judges’ comments. But I was still kind of tired, and really didn’t feel like hanging around. I wish I had gotten the chance, with my new perspective, to maybe talk to a few of the other teams, and I probably would have been roped into judging had I been there this afternoon. (I particularly missed judging the salsa category this year.)
* In years past, I would be involved in the Nashville Symphony concert, Relay For Life and Mountain T.O.P. trips, all within a six- or eight-week period, all of them high points of my year, and then I’d feel kind of let down afterward. Well, the symphony concert is no more, and I didn’t go to Mountain T.O.P. this year. This year, I went from “The Foreigner” to Relay For Life to the Lake Junaluska trip to the chili cookoff. But the letdown is the same, and I think it’s started, especially since I feel like the chili cookoff didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I’ve been feeling cranky and out-of-sorts today. The one good part is that I can start looking forward to my Sierra Leone trip in November.