Chili Cook-Off in a Box

Friends gather for a fierce competition to determine who will be the champion of chili

October is National Chili Month, and there’s no better way to celebrate this enticing occasion than by hosting a chili cook-off. Since this is my first time taking on such a grand endeavor, I consult Chili Cook-Off in a Box, a fun kit that includes everything you need to know about hosting a chili cook-off, from community fundraisers to smaller events like the one I hosted in my home with several of my close competitors—err, friends, I mean.

The kit includes badges for five judges, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and People’s Choice prize ribbons, scorecards, numbered table tents to keep the chili anonymous and a booklet that explains the history of chili, tips for hosting your own cook-off and many delicious and prize-winning recipes.

Of these recipes I choose The Great Pumpkin Chili, substituting sausage for soy sausage. This chili has rich texture from two different types of beans, three different types of peppers and diced tomatoes. Soon the savory aroma of pureed pumpkin, cinnamon, chili powder, allspice, nutmeg and garlic fills my kitchen, and upon first taste I have absolute certainty that my chili will be triumphant above all the rest.

Soon the guests arrive, plastic containers, pots and crock pots in hand. They present homemade batches of Butternut Squash Chili, Mexican Chicken Chili, Vegetarian Chili and Traditional Chili. My husband’s friend Cris proudly sets his dish among the others. “It’s Habanero Sriracha Chili,” he says. “And it’s hot.” He attempts to disguise his fixation, but there is fire in his eyes, and his mind is set on one thing—that first place ribbon.

We choose five judges who hadn’t entered chili in the competition and therefore would be impartial—Pat, Robert, Perry, Will and Matt. These five guys are presented with the task of tasting each chili and discussing the aroma, texture and flavor of each one to determine a winner. Cornbread and pumpkin beers serve as the palate cleansers between each sample.

The judges note aspects of the chili that appeal to them. “I notice brown, white and red beans in this one,” notes Pat. “A multi-cultural chili, indeed.”

“This one seems to be loaded with veggies and tastes as if it would be the healthiest of all,” says Perry.

There are also some characteristics that seem to be out of the judges’ favor. “This one is just average,” says Matt of the Mexican Chicken Chili. “I also find it to be too sweet.”

The controversy begins with a comment from Perry as he samples the Mexican Chicken Chili. “It’s tasty, but I don’t know if I would classify it as chili. I prefer traditional ingredients.” Pat contradicts the comment by referencing a statement he’d previously read in the Chili Cook-off handbook. “If I may quote the handbook,” he says, “Chili fell out of favor in the prosperous times that followed World War II, but interest in the dish was rekindled in the 1960s, when home cooks started concocting regional interpretations of the stew. Chili no longer meant just beef and hot peppers; it could be made with pork, bacon, sausage, lamb, mutton or poultry.” Robert henceforth gives Perry the moniker, “The Traditionalist.”

After all six dishes are sampled and scored, it’s time to announce the winners who will receive prize ribbons along with fall houseplants. The judges have nominated Will as “Keeper of the Ribbons,” a noble and coveted title that’s reserved for only the most distinguished judges. Will announces that the third place winner is his girlfriend, Kerry, for her Traditional Chili. Perry gives a nod of approval to Kerry’s traditional methods as she accepts her prize ribbon and small plant.

Second place goes to My for her Mexican Chicken Chili. My beams with pride as she accepts her ribbon and purple mum. However when walking past Matt who had insulted her chili earlier, she grits her teeth and glares in his direction. “No thanks to you, Matt” she says.

Lastly Will announces the grand prize winner—the chili cook-off master who has created a tasty and hearty dish that wows the palate and fills the soul with delicious chili greatness. I prepare to accept the blue ribbon and quickly try to remember the speech I’d planned earlier, but as I take a step forward, I realize that my name isn’t called. “Cris’s Habanero Sriracha Chili wins first prize,” Will announces.

Of course I’m disappointed at first, but with the pure joy and excitement that beams across Cris’s face as he accepts the 1st prize ribbon and the giant fall mum, who could be a sore loser? Plus I get to keep all the leftovers!


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