RENO, NEVADA — It was 89 degrees in the shade and even hotter everywhere else. But the 9,000 men and women swarming around the parking lot of the Reno Hilton last month didn't seem to mind. After all, they were there to watch the 30th annual World Championship Chili Cookoff, and extreme heat was the main attraction.
With a grand prize of $25,000, this competition is the biggest and most prestigious of the 300-plus chili cookoffs held in the United States every year. "This is our Superbowl, our World Series," says 1995 winner Norm Gaul of Costa Mesa, Calif., who was back to defend his title. "Everybody here had to win qualifying cookoffs. You can't just walk in here and say you want to cook chili. There are no amateurs here."
Far from it. Most of the 109 competitors - representatives from 46 states and from overseas territories as distant as Australia - have been on the chili cookoff circuit for at least a decade. They have spent countless hours and dollars elevating their recipes to spicy perfection. And they take the World Championship very seriously.
Standing side-by-side at fold-out tables under white canvas tents that offered little relief from the sadistic afternoon sun, they chopped and diced and seasoned their ingredients with the sort of life-or-death concentration usually exhibited by movie heroes defusing bombs. Their recipes, which have names like Buzzard's Breath and The Beer Hunter, are divulged on a need-to-know basis only.
"You're always curious about what's in the winning pot," admits Sandy Sanders of Aurora, Colo., who was wearing her "lucky" outfit: a matching vest and cowboy hat, both covered in stars-and-stripes sequins. "I always try to taste the winner. I never mind losing to a good, spicy chili. But when I lose to a pot of spaghetti sauce, it makes me crazy!" Despite the fierce competition, Ms. Sanders insists that the cookoff is, in fact, fun. "I love to do this," she says, surveying the sea of spectators who came to sample the entries and listen to the blue-grass band that was fiddling away on a makeshift stage. "Cooking chili is my hobby. I don't square dance. I don't go to bars. I only cook chili."
Carol and Steve Porteous of Vancouver, British Columbia, whose offering, Final Heat Chili, ultimately placed fifth, feel the same devotion. "Even if we hadn't qualified for the championship," says Ms. Porteous, "we would have come down here anyway, just to watch and dance and have fun. We have a lot of friends here."
In fact, many of the competitors know one another, mostly because they all attend so many of the other, smaller cookoffs throughout the year. The World Championship, which marks the end of the cookoff year, is regarded not just as the granddaddy of chili festivals, but also as an excellent chance to catch up with old friends. "We are just people brought together by a love of spicy food," says 1989 world champ Phil Walter of Fairbanks, Alaska, who is known on the cookoff circuit as Tarantula Jack. "Wherever we are, we always get together and have a big barbecue with lots of good food and country music. It's like a party, no doubt about it."
And like any party, chili cookoffs buzz with tall tales, memories, and myths. "Everybody's got a story," says Tarantula Jack. "One time, my friend and I were flying from Seattle to Alaska for a cookoff, but our plane got delayed. Well, we didn't want to waste any time, so we started cutting our meat in the airport bar. Some of the other passengers took one look at our knives, and the next thing we knew, we were surrounded by a SWAT. team."
The rules of the World Championship are as simple as the recipes are complex. Contestants have from noon to 3 p.m. to cook their chili, at which point an announcer gets on a loudspeaker and orders them to turn off their stoves immediately.
The chilis are then poured into quart-sized plastic containers marked with numbers that were assigned to the contestants at random. Officials collect the specimens and cart them over to the judging station, where a team of experts (cooks who didn't make it into the championship, mostly) grade them according to taste, color, aroma, meat texture, and spice blending. Beans, considered a filler, are strictly verboten in competition chili.
"Flavor really is what we consider most," says Bill Dinges of Phoenix, Ariz., who served as a judge this year. "You have to say to yourself: 'If chili was all you could eat for the rest of your life, which one would you want?' So it all comes down to taste. Appearance is a tie-breaker."
To keep their taste buds razor sharp, judges rinse their mouths out between tastings. Tradition is prized at the World Championship; heterodox recipes score poorly and smack of amateurism.
"You're more likely to encounter oddball recipes at regional cookoffs, where there are more first-time cooks," says judge Kevin Whiteneck, also of Phoenix, who has evaluated chilis containing bear, rattlesnake, even armadillo. As the sun began to set over the mountains, the fiddlers stopped fiddling, the banjoers stopped banjoing, and the buzzing crowd convened at a makeshift stage.
This year's winner was Georgia Weller of Bloomfield Hills, Mich. As her family and friends stormed the stage la Family Feud, a photographer emerged from the crowd and urged the happy Weller family to say cheese.
Instead, they all said, "Chili!"
Georgia Weller's $25,000 winning recipe calls for several kinds of chili powders. All are available in specialty stores; most in supermarkets. Can't find them all? Don't worry, it still makes one great, tasty dish.
Southern Chili Georgia Style
3 teaspoons vegetable oil
3 pounds chuck beef, cut in 1/2-inch chunks
15 1/2-ounce can beef broth
15 1/2-ounce can chicken broth
8-ounce can tomato sauce
3 to 4-ounce can green chilis, chopped
1 teaspoon Tabasco
4-1/2 teaspoons California (mild) chile powder
4 teaspoons Gebhardt chili powder (or other blend)
1/2 teaspoon New Mexico (hot) chili powder
1/2 teaspoon chimayo
1/2 teaspoon pasilla
3-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried granulated garlic
4 teaspoons onion powder
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
Heat oil in a large pot and brown beef. Add broths, tomato sauce, green chilis, Tabasco. Mix dry ingredients and add 2/3 of them to chili. Bring to a boil and simmer, two hours. Add remaining spices; cook one hour or until meat is tender. Salt to taste. Serves 6 to 8.