Chili Contest Judging Proves to Be a Hot Time in the Old Town
Past experience tells me I should know better than to get involved in any type of food contest.
Sadly, I never listen.
Several years ago, during the Mickey Mantle World Series in McKinney, Texas, I -volunteered to take part in a hot dog eating contest during the baseball tournament's opening ceremonies. It was weeks after the better-known hot dog eating contest at Coney Island, N.Y., and I was stoked about the chance to see how I stacked up against other local celebrities and noncelebrities.
It was a great idea - until I found myself facing a pile of wieners and buns and realized that I hated hot dogs. I choked down two and a half of them before being overwhelmed y the desire for a two-liter bottle of Pepto.
That day, I vowed never again to get involved in any type of contest that involved me eating large amounts of food. Since then, I have probably eaten 10 hot dogs - or fewer than two a year.
Fast forward to Saturday. The occasion was a chili cook-off to benefit the local chapter of Hugs Across America, an organization that provides stuffed teddy bears to children in need. The winner received $250.
Sequestered at O'Donnell's Pub, I stood facing a pool table covered with white paper. Twenty-eight see-through plastic bowls topped with blue lids encircled a pile of plastic spoons. I was one of seven judges tasked with selecting the best chili. I thought back to that summer day in Texas when I couldn't eat another hot dog, and my stomach rebelled.
I began to feel I had bitten off more than I could chew. Despite my undying love for chili, I wondered what I had -gotten myself into. I worried that all these great, spicy oncoctions were going to be great now, and I was going to be miserable in a few hours. Yet I pressed onward.
For two hours we slurped spoonfuls of the chili, circling the table like a human NASCAR race. Each round we attempted to eliminate contenders by a show of hands. By the third round of tasting, I was beginning to lose my zest for the event. Each spoonful was harder and harder to get down. I experienced flavor overload that couldn't be washed away by any amount of water.
Then I began to worry less about how the spicy goodness was going to affect my gut and more about the pressure of judging.
Just an hour earlier, I had wandered up and down New Hampshire Avenue, psyching myself up. Large silver pots glistened in the sun and the smell of chili filled the air. People of all ages - and even their pets - sampled the fare.
I had volunteered to be a judge thanks to my affinity for chili. I even won a coin flip with Pilot colleague John Krahnert to be able to take part. This was going to be great. I love chili - and not just the Cincinnati style I wrote about a few weeks ago.
This, I had thought, would be easy. But now, in between mouthfuls, I began to think, as one of my fellow judges put it, "There is a lot of pressure."
"This is the most important thing I've done in a while," another said.
Whittling the selections down, much less picking a winner, was harder than I'd thought. Sure, there was one offering whose gritty, sour taste sent several judges sprinting to the bathroom sink. But by and large, most of the chili was quite tasty. There are several problems with picking a winner. But for me, the biggest one was that there is no one way to do chili. Chicken chili, white bean chili, vegetable chili, spicy or mild - I could go on and on.
I'm sure all seven of the judges had different standards for award-winning chili. For me it was something that had good flavor, with the right amount of beans, meat and veggies. Something that would fill you up on a cold day. If there were different seven judges, you'd have gotten a different result. In the end, I think we came up with a pretty good decision.
More important, I can still say that I love chili. In fact, I had some more at home last night. It wasn't as good as Tuesday's winner, but it was much better than any hot dog.
Tom Embrey is a senior writer at The Pilot. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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