Thursday, July 15, 2010

Who would be the 2010 Chili King or Queen?

Over the years, I’ve watched a handful of cooking contests and laughed at the nervous contestants running around trying to get their food just the way they want it for the judges. Sometimes, it’s funny, sometimes I’m practically in tears when I see accidents derail potential winners. I’ve done the same thing on catering jobs, and it ain’t funny when it happens to you.

The good thing about planning ahead and arriving at 6 a.m. is that at 10:30, 15 minutes before the judging was to begin, I wasn’t sweating bullets and running around like a chicken with his head cut off. All was calm and serene at my cooking booth at the 2010 Rimz & Ribz Chili Cookoff at Cornerstone Fellowship in Livermore, California on July 10.

Those last 15 minutes, I spent perusing the ball scores and sipping on iced tea, pinky up. I was happy with my taste test at 10:30, so I was done adding spices. I kept hoping my chili would thicken up as it cooked, but it just wasn’t cooperating. Bad chili.

To thicken it, I added three separate roux’s, a mixture of flour and oil, but adding any more meant a potential pasty taste. Not good. The only way for it to thicken up was to cook it down over heat. The flavor kept enhancing, but it also broke up my half-inch pieces of chuck steak. It was getting thicker, but for the wrong reasons.

By that time, I had accepted that I had made a fatal mistake in my plans, and there was nothing I could do to change it. Maybe that’s why people on those TV contests are panicking: They realize their product isn’t winning, and they might even start over halfway through the contest. Me? I thought that was my fatal flaw, because texture is one of the judging elements.

My flaw was that my test didn’t match my contest recipe. My tests included beans, but in searching the recipes of past contest winners, I noticed no one used beans. For the contest, I didn’t change the amount of liquid to go into the recipe. Instead of the beans helping thicken up the chili, mine was runny.

As 10:45 neared, the contestants were told to prepare their chili for the patrons to come and try all the chilies, then pick their favorite on a judging card. Before that happened, I set aside the best of my chili in another, covered pot for the sequestered judging panel an hour later.

For $2, each patron – who came to check out the 100-plus cars and to eat a $10 barbecue lunch – received seven little paper cups and plastic spoons to try each chili, then pick one to come back to the one he liked best. Because my beef had broken up, I carefully doled out 3-4 chunks, then added a little chili juice. I felt like such a cheapskate. I kept waiting for somebody to scold me. “Come on: Where’s the beef?”

Slowly, comments started to come back to me that my chili was the best, a pleasant surprise because I thought I had blown it. I knew my chili had good flavor, but it had flaws. One by one, patrons came back to get another cup o’ chili.

Toward the end of the first judging, my mongo pot of chili was quickly dwindling. The contest told us to provide 18 quarts – that’s 4 ½ gallons, and I think I had 4 gallons in my 10 gallon pot. “Please Lord, let your humble servant have enough chili to finish the contest.” I think that was from the Psalms, chapter 151.

And the Lord blessed me, every so minutely. I think I had two quarts left of chili juice, sans meat, at the end. That was going home with me. All I’d had of my own concoction was perhaps 20 itty bitty teaspoonfuls for tastings.

After the initial judging ended, we had 15 minutes to prepare our judging packages. For me, all that meant was getting my chili boiling for five minutes, then putting it in the container and taking it to the judges.

Unlike the judging you see on TV, no one was running around frantically at this judging. Maybe it’s because our winner’s checks were only $50 for the patron judging and $150 for the official judging, whereas on TV, some of those contests have multi-thousand dollar prizes.

While we waited, I cleaned up. My station returned to its containers and into my car for the return drive home. (Actually, I had to drive to Pleasanton for a three-hour meeting for a mission trip I’m making to Haiti at the end of July.) I just wanted to go home. I was justifiably pooped after getting up at 4.

Thirty minutes later, I was warned they were ready to announce the winners. No butterflies in my stomach, no fingers crossed. I wasn’t praying for victory. I had fun, and that was my number 1 goal. I was sitting with a friend talking about the events of the day.

Then they announced me as the winner. It took me all of 10 seconds to get to where the announcer was standing, and by the time I got there, he had moved on to the next gift certificate winner. I looked around, dumbfounded. Is this it? I’m the 2010 Rimz & Ribz Chili Cookoff King, and this is all I get?

So I headed back to my table, head down. Then the coordinator cornered me. “You won both judging categories, which means $200. We’ll send you a check. Thanks.”

So, that’s it. I am officially the Chili King of North Canyons Parkway. Next year, I hope to defend my crown. And though I didn’t win a trophy to add to my second-place tamale contest trophy from 2004, I plan to get a gold tiara with purple lettering and wear it to church for the next month or two. Hey, I earned it.

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