February 21, 2014

Some thoughts on judging "chile"

Yours truly, at left, part of a chili cookoff recently.

First, Texans, yes, that’s how you spell it. I grew up in New Mexico, where chile includes neither tomatoes nor beans when done correctly. That said, maybe the misspelling in the Abandoned Pointy Object State™ is actually a good thing, so we know just what is what.

That said, let’s dive in, so to speak. With the above in mind, I’ve used the Texas spelling, because we were judging, with two exceptions, hamburger, beans tomato contents of some sort and chili powder. (Also, “chile” normally uses green, not red, another way, by color, you know if tomatoes are sneaking in. Beans are cooked on the side and added to taste.)

I recently had the pleasure of being asked to judge a small chili cook-off. Having done this a few times before, although it had been a few years, I had no problems saying yes.

After a bit of pre-cooking camaraderie with fellow judges, it was time to dive into the different samplings of chili. We got most of your typical beef, beans and tomatoes, plus chili seasonings, offerings, and two specials. We had one “white” chili with no tomatoes, and one beans only.

I suppose this is like judging Olympic speed skating or something like that. A judge doesn’t want to score the first entrant or two too high, lest he or she sent a benchmark that doesn’t allow enough room for truly superior entrants later on.  At the same time, one doesn’t want to start too low, especially if the judge forgets there was a reason for scoring the first entrant or two that low.

It’s also a bit like wine tasting. Judges have to cleanse their palates of the taste of one chili before moving on to the next.

That said, on the judging, one does not want to totally clear one’s mind of the taste of the previous chilis. They’re each being judged individually, yes, but also against others as part of a contest.

Meanwhile, while the church’s cook-off was something polite and among friends, not every one is. I’ve read Frank Tolbert’s “A Bowl of Red,” which includes, among other things, how the Terlingua Chili Cook-Off got started, and some of the fireworks of its early days. I’ve judged a Chili Appreciation Society International cook-off, and know that the competition is fierce. And, now, it has its own cook-off in Terlingua, in addition to the original. (I’ve been out to Big Bend, which arguably should be part of New Mexico, as should the rest of the Trans-Pecos, more than once, just never at cook-off time.)

During pre-judging camaraderie time, one or another of my fellow judges said something about marinade. From there, my mind wandered to the Cajun butter injection marinade often used with deep-fried turkeys. And, from there, my mind wandered further yet, to the idea of deep-frying a wild hog, if a younger one were found to fit into a turkey-sized fryer. Readers can now thank me for a new cooking tip.

That, in turn, does bring me to the issue of meat in chili, whether one has beans, tomatoes or neither in it. Other than our beans-only and the chicken chili, other entries were all some sort of hamburger. That said, I’ve had cubed bits of roast in the past. I’m sure that bulk ground pork would be tasty. Healthy-minded people use ground turkey, I’m sure. Wild hog would probably go fine. (A joke of mine about “dilly chili” aside, I’ve fortunately never stumbled across anybody putting armadillo, or other road kill of the sub-venison level, in a pot of chili.)

Anyway, all of this leads to the old Latin maxim: “De gustibus non disputandum.” We still know that one in English: “There’s no disputing tastes.”

So, fire you up a bowl of red, if you’re going Texas style, or a bowl of clear studded with green, if you’re further west.

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