My eyes were watering, my throat was burning and my mouth felt as if it were having an out-of-body experience. Even my husband, who orders sliced jalapeno peppers at Mexican restaurants, was looking a little sweaty.
We and a few other folks were in a tent in Corinth, Miss., at the fifth annual Crossroads Chili Cook-off. We were working our way around a table containing 20 numbered bowls of chili. Our job was to sample each bowl, record our comments and then rank the bowls into first, second and third place.
Around bowl No. 12 or so, I was starting to question my enthusiastic “Sure! Sounds like fun!” response when cook-off organizers asked my husband and me to be judges.
Of course, by this point, the competition was in its third hour. We’d tasted close to 10 bowls of locally made chili, around 10 bowls of salsa and 15 or so bowls of green chili — all leading up to the 20-entry red-chili round. This was the main event, with a hefty cash prize, bragging rights and the title of Mississippi chili champ up for grabs.
I couldn’t let a little thing such as the inability to feel my tongue stop me from doing my best.
That was one of the things I’ve learned about chili cook-offs from being a judge: Chili cooks are serious about their competitions. Oh, they may wear silly chili-pepper necklaces and decorate their cooking spaces with whimsical chili-pepper lights, but they’re intensely focused on preparing award-winning food.
They’re in it to win it.
That was evident on cook-off morning as pickups and SUVs arrived at the cook-off site and contestants jumped out to start unloading equipment. The cooking teams, many of whom travel the country year-round competing in chili cook-offs, greeted each other warmly and caught up on chili-circuit news.
Teams who knew each other from previous contests renewed friendly rivalries, while experienced cook-off participants welcomed newcomers with jokes and helpful advice.
But the chatter quieted as cooks lit stoves and unpacked knives to get ready for competition — it was clear that the take-no-prisoners battle was on.
As with any good battle, there are rules.
Official chili cook-offs, such as the Corinth contest, are sanctioned by the International Chili Society. The ICS is a nonprofit group that establishes rules as well as the pathway of cook-off wins leading to the world championships.
The first I-didn’t-know-that shocker for judges is that the ICS declares official chili to be bean-less.
There are no beans — or pasta for that matter — in ICS chili. This lets the meat and the spices shine, and, really, isn’t that what chili is all about?
Second, the ICS sanctions three cook-off categories: the traditional bean-less red-pepper chili, chili verde (“green” chili) made with green peppers and any type of homemade salsa.
Also, the ICS doesn’t care what form the chili meat is in — ground, shredded, chunked or whatever — despite endless and spirited discussion among chili fans about which is best.
There are other precise and specific rules governing cook-offs (chili must be cooked on site, cooking time is between three and four hours and so on) contestants must follow in order to compete.
We judges, on the other hand, only have to sample dozens of bowls of chili and name our favorites.
Before competitors brought their numbered bowls to the judging tent for each round, organizers reminded us judges to taste each entry, jot down helpful comments on our judging sheets — without saying anything out loud so we wouldn’t influence each other — and then rank our favorites in first, second and third places.
ICS wants judges to consider good chili flavor, texture of the meat, consistency, blend of spices, aroma and color.
In addition, we had water, tortilla chips and sour cream for palate-cleansing breaks.
We warmed our judging skills on the first round, which was chili made by local cooks.
These entries were for local glory only since they weren’t eligible for any ICS wins, but we considered each bowl as carefully as if it could become world-wide chili champ. When the votes were counted, we had practically unanimously agreed on a yummy bowl of chicken “chili” the local newspaper editor had made.
Succeeding categories of salsa, chili verde and red chili proved more challenging. Judges tasted and re-tasted, took breaks, sniffed, stirred and tasted again. After seeing how dedicated the chili cooks were to their craft, we wanted to be equally as diligent in our judging.
Finally, all ballots were in and tallied. Because of the numbering system used to insure that nobody knows whose chili we’re tasting, it was difficult to figure out if I’d voted for any of the eventual winners. But I did peek at my husband’s judging sheets throughout the day and was gratified to see that he and I usually picked the same top scorers — although not in the same order.
As soon as I can swallow again, I think I’ll register us for the 2012 judging. After all, it was a fun day, I learned some things and I didn’t have to cook supper. That’s a definite chili win for me.
Cathy Wood is a freelance writer working in the Shoals.