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The Chili Diary

Discovering the true meaning of heartburn

By Sara Bir

Some people get silly about chili. I don't like to think I'm one of them. I'd like to think that I'm very rational and reasonable when it comes to chili. Real chili is red, chock full o' beef, and has no beans. Right? That's reasonable, I think.

But not to my friends. Last year a couple of them invited me to their inaugural 4th of July Chili Cook-Off, a casual but competitive affair with perhaps 20 people in attendance. I weaseled my way into judging, figuring that with three other chefs constituting the panel, we'd all be in clear agreement. Nope. Some green stuff with sausage got first place because it "had the best flavor." Flavor my ass! Chili isn't green, and it sure as hell don't have little chunks of sausage floating around in it.

My favorite chili that day was actually vegetarian and laden with beans (which will get you shot in certain parts of the country). But its classic chili flavor (and color--red) was robust, its texture hearty, and its finish long and satisfying. It didn't win first place.

The chili that I usually make is not, according to the rigid meatless-and-beanless-red definition, truly chili. This de facto chili, a concoction of pinto beans, tomatoes, carrots, parsnips, zucchini, and textured vegetable protein (I call it Hippy Chili), I keep to myself. I should be kind and share it, but I feel the same way about Hippy Chili as I do about the first Mötley Crüe album: I'm too embarrassed about liking it to display my fondness in public.

This is why, upon deciding to enter the second annual 4th of July Chili Cook-Off, I resolved to show all of these misdirected makers of chili what the real deal is. Needing a partner in enlightenment, I drafted my boyfriend, who is slightly inept in the kitchen but a very good sport. Most importantly, he has the most acute sense of smell of any human I've yet encountered. My Chili Sous Chef would be a powerful one-man focus group.

All elements in place, the path to Independence Day chili domination began.

Early June, Saturday morning
Pounds of beef chuck in a heap on the cutting board. Making special test batch. Am finely dicing beef by hand to make chili extra full of love.

Beef almost diced. Criminy, this is tiring.

Still later
Blood everywhere! Beef not my undoing: onion was. Pick dime-sized circle of fingertip off cutting board. Swaddle fingertip in masking tape and press on. Figure that I know where my blood has been, whereas the cow's blood is anybody's guess--and it's the cow we're all eating. Hours later
Bloody Finger Chili all cooked. After so much labor, it's a bit disappointing. Needs more depth. "What do you think of the texture?" I ask Chili Sous Chef. "Is it too thick? Does it seem greasy at all? Can it stand more spice?" No, no, and yes.

Considering last year's cook-off, I'm curious if effort is worth it. People were taking themselves too seriously. It was dangerous being a judge. The last place team ganged up on me while I was lazily splayed, drunk and full of chili, in the hammock and swung it around in a most violent manner. Very disagreeable to a drunk girl full of chili.

June 29, 8am
Make competition chili today, five days in advance. Freezing allows flavors chance to meld properly. You don't need a freezer to accomplish this, only time, one day of rest--a chili Sabbath.

Bloody Finger Chili on stove, minus namesake blood; no cuts this time. Had blended my own chili powder, a carefully calculated mix of hot New Mexico chili powder, dusky Pasilla chili powder, whatever constitutes the chili powder in Oliver's bulk spices, and Asian chili powder, brighter in tone and flavor than North American chili powders. Am hoping this untraditional but not wholly uncouth addition will underscore earthiness of other chili powders and propel them to be truer to own flavor.

Then toasted spices (chili powder, cumin, paprika, cayenne) in dry skillet over low heat, stirring. Don't lower nose to loose ground spices in the skillet to check on aroma, lest spices go up nose like low-grade cocaine, resulting in itching and burning.

Chili done. Decide to assess new chili in form of chili omelet. Mmm. Chili omelet.

Urgh. Don't eat chili for breakfast.

Can't move. What was I thinking?

Time for dinner. Not hungry; vile chili burps destroyed appetite for whole day.

July 4, 1:15pm
Pack up car with soon-to-be legendary chili and drive off.

At hosts' house. Guns N' Roses on the stereo. Flags everywhere. Patriotism!

"Where is everybody?" I ask host, actually meaning "Where is the rest of the chili?" Had imagined a dozen clashing chili mercenaries hauling in wily and smoldering chili.

"No one is here except Todd and Selvi," he says. Geez! What kind of chili contest has only two contestants? Another team came later. They lurk in the kitchen, still finishing their chili. No Chili Sabbath for them! Orthodox Bloody Finger Chili as done as it's ever gonna be.

Game of backyard jungle croquet gives way to beer-induced pangs of hunger. Everyone gets plastic bowl and spoon; we are to taste all three chilis and then judge them by cheering loudest for our favorite.

Only three chilis and everyone judging? Ominous premonition creeps over me; half of guests are vegetarians. Ninety-five-percent-beef Bloody Finger Chili is doomed.

Chili #1: chunky, meatless, with beans, rusty orange color. Consistency perfect, classic chili flavor and texture. A people's chili. Chili #2: brothy from whole canned tomatoes, thin, large hunks of bell pepper and some kind of steak hunks floating around in there. Hotter, not as flavorful as #1. Makers of chili #2 recommend eating it with white rice. Rice? Rice is for gumbo, not chili! It was good, their stuff, but not chili yet, having been deprived of Chili Sabbath. Chili #3: our poor dark horse chili. Remember chili omelet disaster and skip it.

Try all three chilis mixed together. Our concentrated chili permeates mildness of other two, and all is well and right. Chilis #1 and #2 cannot approach the intimidating breadth and depth of Bloody Finger Chili, but you could eat a big honking bowl of either and feel satisfied, not burdened. Ours is not affable, easygoing chili. It takes active participation to appreciate. It broods.

Time to judge/cheer: Bloody Finger Chili garners a few half-hearted "woos"--woos with a lowercase w. It places third.

Upon presentation of booby prize--a Bud 40oz--I lose control, shout out, "You guys are just a bunch of wussy vegans, and that's why we won third place!" Which is not very nice. I think I only half mean it. But I got what I deserved; I had made snob chili, and no one likes a snob. It's just not fun. I was no fun.

Chili Sous Chef is pleased with our placing--he likes Bud 40s.

We take turns whacking at a piñata. I miss.

Chili and beer all day long take a lot out of you, and what it puts in you is not pretty.

Still have one pint of chili in freezer, sitting like a giant paperweight. Would rather eat secret Hippy Chili, which I should have entered in cook-off. Humbled by chili.

I pass out in Chili Sous Chef's apartment before most fireworks displays get past preliminary booms and bangs. Have learned lesson, but still contend notion of serving chili over rice.

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From the August 15-21, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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