People come up to me all the time and ask, "What's it like being a chili cook-off judge?" Well, friends, it's not easy and not for the faint of heart. If you can't see the anguish and torment that went into the complex set of calculations on the scoresheet above, then you really are just as tuned-out and desensitized as the pundits say you are.
Yes, that which you see above is an honest-to-goodness Chili Appreciation Society International, Inc. (C.A.S.I.)-approved scoresheet from July 6th's 1st Invitational Chili con Carne Cook-off at Barfly. All right, it's an improvised one, because there weren't enough to go around, but one which followed C.A.S.I.'s strict guidelines nonetheless. C.A.S.I. rates chilis according to five criteria: "AROMA - RED COLOR - CONSISTENCY - TASTE - AFTERTASTE." We broke with C.A.S.I. conventions by only granting 5 points per category, for a maximum score of 25 per judge, and a maximum score of 125 for all 5 of us judges. There were only 11 competitors in this year's competition--as opposed to the 250-300 competitors you might get at Terlingua--so we figured our dumbed-down (?) system would be plenty sophisticated for this particular event.
When we'd taken care of the preliminaries, we got down to business. Round after round of numbered bowls were served to us freshly microwaved (?), and round after round of chilis were assessed.
Now, being a betting man, and this being a punk rock/rock 'n' roll affair co-hosted by Jonathan "Punkusraucous Rex" Cummins, Nick "Punkusraucous Benz" Robinson, and the notorious Barfly, I wagered that the competitors would go HOT or go home. I thought they'd throw down that proverbial chili-stirring gauntlet by mixing up the most volcanic chili imaginable, daring us lily-livered judges to dock 'em points for having served up manmade magma. I thought they were gonna make us sweat, and maybe even cry. Frankly, I was a bit worried, imagining bowl after bowl of punishingly spicy chili, so I brought some help along: a bag of Maya tortilla chips. Ostensibly I'd brought them to help clear the palate between bowls--to give each and every competitor the fair shake he or she deserved--but in all truth I thought I'd need them to help dampen the pain. In the end, we needed those chips, but certainly not to help put out fires, because by and large those chilis were limp. Some of them were even sweet, for christsakes.
Now, I don't want to badmouth any of our competition chili-making brothers and sisters out there, but let's just say there's room for improvement because, unfortunately, there really wasn't any anguish and torment that went into the scoring. I'd say there were three or four chilis whose relative accomplishment helped them stand out from the rest. There was a little anguish and torment that went into the tasting, though: at least two of those chili chefs could/should have been tried under the Geneva Conventions.
Advice for would-be chili contestants:
1. lose the beans--it's all about the meat (and the chili peppers, and the herbs, and the spices, etc.), or at least that's what chili judges tend to dwell on
2. avoid using ground meat--unless you're gonna take the time to grind it to your own uncompromising specifications, or you're making a chili to top your chili dogs with, ground meat's probably going to result in an insipid chili, and it's all about the meat
3. slow cook your meat to perfection--let's not forget, it's all about the meat--and specifically it's about turning cheap cuts of meat into something spectacularly flavorful
4. make your own blend of spices, taking care to toast them and grind them according to your own uncompromising specifications, and make sure they're well balanced when you blend them (see #1 above)
5. avoid whimsical fusion touches--chili itself is a fusion dish of sorts, but you don't need to go overboard
6. heat isn't "the answer," but a good chili should make the one enjoying it break a sweat
At least the musical entertainment was blistering hot. We came out of our judges' deliberations and the band--The, uh, Sandwiches--were tuning up.
There were a couple of mid-set mishaps involving sudden loss of power, but the band itself had power to burn and as they ripped through a set of Black Flag covers a healthy little moshpit formed right in front of the band. Who knows: that might have been a first. Not the "post-chili cook-off moshpit" part necessarily. But maybe the "post-chili cook-off moshpit in front of an all-Black Flag covers band." Or at least the "post-chili cook-off moshpit in front of an all-Black Flag covers band in Canada." "Eastern Canada"?*
All in all, though, mishaps, mistakes, and all, the night was a hit. Can't wait for next year's affair and, on behalf of this year's judges, I'd like to tip my ten-gallon Stetson to the co-hosts and organizers for a job well done. May this be the beginning of something big.
* I'd assumed the post-chili cook-off moshpit was a first until I punched "chili cook-off moshpit" into Google. I was wrong.