A mysterious thing happened on Friday afternoon. I was suddenly and fiercely stricken with some of the most unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms I’ve had since a full-blown bout of gastroenteritis a few years back. All of Friday afternoon, evening, night and well into Saturday morning were spent virtually chained to the toilet. Lovely, I know.
But here’s the mysterious part: Jenny, Fayza, Monica and I all came down with the exact same symptoms at the exact same time. And we were all at the exact same party on Wednesday night. Coincidence? I think not. While I was holding out hope that this was some kind of stomach flu and not food poisoning, I’ve had enough stomach bugs in my life to tell the difference. All that’s left to do now is figure out the culprit…
While I was laying in bed sometime around 3am on Saturday morning with vicious stomach cramps, all I could think of was I’ve GOT to get better in time to judge the chili cookoff! Nothing stands between me and chili/passing judgment on others. I’m devoted like that.
So on Saturday afternoon, I dragged myself out of bed — pale and achy and weak — and down to Shady Tavern. The smell of chili and barbeque in the air was like an aroma from the gods, like a victory banquet at Valhalla. Surely I didn’t have the stomach flu; if I did, this smell would make me vomit immediately.
Along with Richard and fellow Chowhound Peggy, I began making my way through the tables and tents of contestants, eyeing their cooking methods and decorations. One table, Hunka-Hunka-Burning Chili, had framed Elvis pictures painted on black velvet hung on the fence behind them, along with enough Elvis memorabilia to make Graceland pale in comparison. Another table offered tempting side dishes — freshly pickled jalapeno carrots, various sausages and beer-butt chicken — in addition to their chili. One team had men wearing wigs and housecoats (the Yo Mama’s Chili team) and another had small, adorable children passing out appetizers at the incongrously-named TNT Tits-n-Tails Chili tent. And I sensed a distinct rivalry between the Sexual Chili and the Sensual Chili teams.
The overall vibe of the chili cookoff was wonderful: relaxed, neighborhood-y, gregarious, playful. Everyone was having a great time and no one was taking themselves (or their chili) too seriously. People from all corners of the city showed up, too. Parents with children, rockers with sleeves of tattoos, punks with mohawks, cute little old men, Longhorns fans in head-to-toe burnt orange (the Red River Shootout was on), Heights yuppies, day laborers, you name it. A great turnout, overall.
I was still wary of my intestinal tract exploding at any moment, so I wisely stuck to Sprite the entire time. When Jenny ambled in to the cookoff a little later on with a cup full of ginger juice, I could tell immediately that she wasn’t up to par either. But, by God, we were both determined to judge that chili.
We asked Brandon and Dock (the two founders and fellow judges) if they could push the judging up to 3pm, since Jenny and I were about to gnaw our arms off. Armed with pens and paper, spoons and crackers, we took our seats at a ricket picnic table and began. Styrofoam bowls of piping hot chili were brought to us at random, with “Batch X” or “Batch L” written on the sides. We tasted each bowl silently at first, pensively moving the bites of chili around in our mouths to try and discern certain flavors and spices. Then one of us would finally exclaim, “Too much cumin!” or “Yellow bell peppers!” and the discussion would begin.
Chili is one of those foods that has a remarkably personal taste. You either like sweet chili or you don’t. You prefer chili with beans or you don’t. You like your chili super spicy or your don’t. It makes judging a bit difficult, since each judge could be seeking their own personal preference within each bowl. Auspiciously, the four of us all seemed to be seeking the same things in our bowls: meaty, but not so much meat that you feel like you’re eating a sloppy Joe; a bit of broth, but not watery; spicy, but not with a pronounced chili powder flavor, which leaves the chili tasting bitter and burned. Beans were good either way; none of us were chili purists with the old “Beans are heresy!” argument.
As a result, at the end of the tasting session we all had the same choices across the board for the winners. I can’t say that all tasting/judging sessions are this simple; it was a nice surprise. The “overall winner” was heads-and-shoulders above the rest: an extravagantly meaty chili with ground beef and chunks of sirloin, plenty of kick to it, and an ideal balance of savory and just barely sweet flavors. The “most original” had chunks of Andouille sausage among the other cuts of meat, alongside a wealth of jalapenos and different bell peppers. It tasted too strongly of the grill, though, which made it taste less like chili and more like some kind of meat stew. The “spiciest” was about a 3 on my personal 1 to 10 spiciness scale, but it was still far spicier than any of the others. And to think I was worried about someone making habanero chili…
Apparently, we caused a bit of unrest in our unanimous decision to award “overall winner” (along with a pretty hefty cash prize of nearly $900) to the Chili Kings, as they also won last year amidst accusations of bribery and dirty dealing. I don’t know why they would have needed to bribe anyone, though; their chili blew the competition away. As impartial judges, Jenny and I were happy to have vindicated them.
As we sat and enjoyed the post-award festivities with latecomers Bargas, Dani and Mr. Dani — including a performance by the fabulous Zydeco Dots — I marvelled at the fact that my stomach was still holding on, hardcore, like a stalker who refuses to abide by a restraining order. I was feeling a little rumbly, but other than that? Golden. Who knew that twelve different kinds of chili all consumed in one hour would calm a post-food poisoning ravaged stomach?
If you didn’t make the chili cookoff this year, you missed out. Big time. But that’s okay — this time next year, I expect you there for the 3rd Annual No Holds Barred Chili Cookoff. And to make up for this year’s absence, all you have to do is buy Brandon and Dock a beer each for their birthday. And one each for the judges, of course, to make up for our food poisoning-induced non-consumption this year.
P.S. Photos are coming as soon as I figure out where my battery charger is…