My assignment was clear: Taste one spoonful from each bowl, and eat bread and sour cream between samples to cleanse the palate. Judge by flavor, but appearance counts, too.
The heat should hit the front of the mouth, then go down smooth. Every taste bud should do the macarena.
I was a judge at the 31st annual world championship chili cookoff on Oct. 5. First prize: $25,000.
Not that I, a political reporter who grew up in New England, was in any way qualified. But, the organizers assured me, the best way to write about this was to dive right in, spoon first. And I'd have plenty of experienced company on the judging panel, including Nevada Lt. Gov. Lonnie Hammargren and soap opera star Jeanne Cooper from "The Young and the Restless."
So, having donned my judge's apron, I set off to learn the secrets of competition chili from the 108 masters who had gathered from as far as away as Australia and the Cayman Islands. There, outside the Reno Hilton, over camp stoves, they sauteed and spiced and stirred, for three hours. To qualify, all had won state or regional cookoffs sanctioned by the International Chili Society in Newport Beach, Calif.
Few were professional cooks. Rather, they were doctors and truck drivers and accountants who just love fixing that "bowl of red" - and competing against each other in the 300-plus local competitions around the country each year.
Some chili heads spend weekends, and thousands of dollars a year, traveling to cookoffs. But what makes their chili so great? "It's all chemistry," says Doug Sovern, a hydraulic engineer from Seattle who's been competing since 1983.
Like other cooks, he brought his ingredients with him: high-quality beef, broth, onions, tomato sauce, and little plastic containers with handwritten labels such as "Gunpowder" and "Magic" and "Joe's." Though most cooks insisted there's no secret to great chili, the answer clearly lies in the chili powders from the Southwest.
Former world champion Norm Gaul, from Lancaster, Calif., goes so far as to make his own chili paste: He boils chili pods for half an hour, then scrapes off the pulp to blend in with the sauce. In a good batch, the meat is well permeated, and that's why many chefs cut their meat into quarter-inch cubes (though it seemed to me those little cubes made the chili look sort of like cat food, but what do I know?).
The rules state no beans, no pasta, no extenders of any kind. But anything can go into the sauce. The Cayman Island team sauted their meat - an atypical combo of pork, beef, and bacon - with stick cinnamon. Another chef insisted on sweet Vidalia onions, though none would be visible in the final product. All sauce ingredients are pulverized beyond recognition.
Finally, the moment of truth arrived. Judging tables were set, 22 samples per table. Race-car designer Carroll Shelby - who founded the chili competition in 1967 and Barron Hilton, chairman of the hotel chain, presided as honorary chief judges. But we real judges had some serious business ahead of us.
Sample No. 1 seemed a bit bland. No. 2., too hot. By No. 6, they all started tasting alike. I was in big trouble. And no comparing notes with the other dozen judges at my table. I lingered, I cleansed. Anxious chefs ringing the judges' area studied our faces for signs of ... anything. I rounded the table a second time, trying to narrow the field. Finally, I settled on three that I thought should make the finals.
After a fresh panel of judges - the real experts, I hoped - made their considered choices, a winner was announced: Stephen Falkowski, owner of a snack-food delivery business in Hopewell Junction, N.Y.
A Northerner! And last year's winner was from Michigan. "I guess they're catching up with us," said Jim West, executive director of the chili society, feigning alarm.
Mr. Falkowski appeared stunned. "To be honest, at the time I turned it in, I was not that thrilled with it," he said. "But a lot of times, as the chili sits, it will just improve, and that's obviously what happened."
He and his wife plan to spend their prize money traveling to more cookoffs and "doing some goodwill for chili."
I, too, am ready to hit the circuit. Or at least offer my services to the Washington, D.C., cookoff next May. Of the six chili dishes from my table that made the finals, all three of my selections were included.
Stephen Falkowski's $25,000 winning recipe:
Gold Miner's Chili
1-1/2 cups of white onion, finely minced
8 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 15-1/2-ounce cans chicken broth with fat removed
4 ounces Hunt's tomato sauce
3/4 teaspoon of garlic powder
3 tablespoons ground cumin
10-1/2 tablespoons Gebhardt chili powder
3 lbs. beef, cut in 1/4-inch cubes
1 tablespoon Wesson oil
2 teaspoons of salt
1/2 teaspoon meat tenderizer
1/2 teaspoon of light brown sugar
Dash of Tabasco
In a large pot, simmer onion and minced garlic in 3 cups of chicken broth for 10 minutes. Add tomato sauce and all dry spices, except tenderizer and sugar. Mix well.
Brown the meat with oil in a separate pan and drain well. Sprinkle meat with tenderizer. Add meat to the onion/spice mixture. Add remaining broth and simmer for 2-1/2 hours.
Mix in sugar and Tabasco just before serving.
Serves about 8.
NOTE: Hunt-Wesson (which own Gebhardt chili powder) and Tabasco was the sponsor of the cookoff. You may choose to use other brands.