Hot Stuff on a Foggy Day
A few weeks ago I went down to the Worcester area to interview the World Champion Chili Cook, a guy named Jerry Buma. I’ve written about him for our upcoming January issue so you can read about him then. In the meantime, he invited me to come to the Chili-fest in Wells, Maine, this past weekend. “You can see a bunch of chili-heads in action,” he said, saying further that I could eat chili all day for free. Sounded good. I talked Yankee‘s art director, Lori Pedrick, into coming with me. In spitting rain, we took off for the seacoast, wondering what a chili-fest is all about.
The clouds were still with us when we arrived at the Wells Harbor Park but the rain had stopped. We parked, walked across the sand and entered a cold and foggy world of chili. Each “chili-head” had set up a booth where they had their stoves and their big kettles full of steaming hot chili. Some of the contestants had come from as far away as California and New Jersey. Jerry had already told me that when he travels so far that he has to fly in order to enter a chili contest, what he dislikes the most is that he has to bring everything with him on the airplane — the pots, the ingredients, even the stove. The spices come with him in his carry-on. Some of the chilis had decorated their booths with strings of red chili peppers. Devilish ornaments dangled in the misty breeze.
There were about 15 booths, all bending over their brew with keen attention, ladling out samples to the chili fans. Jerry was at the end with a big apron around his booth that identified his concoction as Boomah’s Revenge and a large flag-like banner that proclaimed him to be the 2008 World Champion. His daughter was doing the honors with the ladle and he was chatting it up with the crowd. He is tall, red-headed and, overall, a fitting chili monarch.
When he saw me, he gave me a big hug and then asked if I would be a judge for the contest that day. Just like that. I was surprised because earlier, he had accused me of having “wimpy taste buds,” which became apparent when I thought that the chili he served me on the day I went to interview him was hot, when it was, in fact, by his assessment, a 3 on a hotness scale of 1 to 10. But he swept that one under the rug and so I joined a team of seven other judges, including Jerry, who didn’t enter this year. The judging was set up in the park’s gazebo, where, on a long table, steaming mugs of chili were set in a line, each one bearing a big number, 1 through 9.
In my interview with Jerry, I had already learned that what he called “competition chili” was not something anyone would really want to eat. “You wouldn’t want to sit down and eat a whole bowl of competition chili,” he said. No? That seemed disappointing until I realized it was like saying a race car isn’t a car you would want to take downtown for a round of errands. All thoroughbreds are in a class by themselves. The chili that all the contestants were handing out from their booths was what is known as “home” chili, in other words, the kind you would want to eat, at home, by the bowl. According to Jerry, this competition chili is just for the judges, each and every ingredient should be evident in the taste, and the taste should be enough.
After tasting each of the contestant’s home chili (too salty, too sweet, ooooo, just right!), I entered the fray with my little plastic spoon. I started with number 1, a smoky, dense version of what I think of as chili. I didn’t like the flavor but I had been told not to put anything negative on the sheet. “Just write something that might be helpful to the chefs,” the organizer had told me when he gave me the clipboard. So I put down “strong, smoky” not really knowing if that had any meaning but thinking that wasn’t really a negative comment.
There are other things that competition chili is not — for one thing, it doesn’t have any beans in it. I like beans in chili and feel the need for beans to counterbalance the meat and spices. But beans are not what chili is all about, Jerry told me. In addition, I love nothing more than a big wedge of cornbread with my chili. In fact, when we had started out from New Hampshire that morning, Lori had said, “Boy, what I’m really looking forward to is a big hot piece of cornbread.” Never saw any at the chili-fest. And no cheese. More than cornbread, I love a layer of sharp cheddar over my hot chili. So, there were plenty of surprises in my chili education.
In sampling the nine, I was amazed at how similar they all were. After each taste, we all cleared our pallets with a green grape or a dab of sour cream on a swatch of tortilla. I felt a small wave of panic realizing I probably could not fairly judge these against each other. The “home” chilis we had sampled out there in the park, well, they were all very different. But these all seemed so close to each other in both taste and appearance. Each concoction included lots of meat that had been chopped fine. None of the entries had ground beef, just the beef, stewed in tomatoes, hot peppers, and spices. I was also surprised how tame the tastes were. None took the top of my head off. Hotness scale was about a 2 for each of them. I marked my sheet and made my comments, rated the ones I liked best, and handed it in.
We sat for a while on the benches that surrounded the gazebo. The fog that had wrapped everything when we arrived had backed off, bringing the harbor into focus. Close in were boats sitting up on cradles, in for the winter or else in for repair or forever. Further out, pleasure boats bobbed on their moorings. A man in a bright yellow slicker sat near us and told us that he used to own the boat yard and that this land, where we had all been tasting the chili, had been slated for development. He and other folks in town had opposed it and they won. Instead of condos, they had made this park where they hold town events and festivals like this one. The gazebo and another building had been donated by residents who cared about what happened here. I was just there for a couple of hours, but I felt glad that the open land was still there, beside the harbor, a pleasant place to be, even in the rain.
When the results were announced (first prize won $1,000 and a place at the World Championships in Las Vegas next month), I found that two of the three chilis I picked had been selected as winners. They just weren’t in the same order. We drove home to New Hampshire, full of chili. And hungry for cornbread.