October 5, 2011

20th Annual Chili Cook-Off!

Chili Cook Off
Chili Cook Off

Article from the student newspaper, La Papillote. Written by Jared Valburg, AOS Culinary Arts.

I stepped out of Metz Hall early in the morning and began walking towards the athletic field. A cloudless sky hung overhead as a cool wind was pulled through the trees on either side of the drive. My footsteps landed between the soft rays of sun as they formed on the pavement before me and I pulled my jacket on tighter, awaiting the full arrival of the sun and the warmth it promised. The weather was, in a word, chilly.

The date was September 18th and I was on my way to the 20th Annual Chili Cook-Off. It was the sport of it all that drew me in, the promise of a battle of spicy stews for a chance to win the Heywood Hog’s Breath Cup. It was the promise of a competition based on craftsmanship, on real skill and showmanship. It was also the promise of a ton of free chili.

I arrived very early and watched as the canvas tents and gas stoves were set up on the soccer green. In a central tent, the band ran sound checks and got their instruments ready for the soon-approaching crowd. As it was, people were already beginning to trickle in, walking around the half-assembled tents and opening the complimentary chips and salsa in the dining area.

Each team designed a number of themed signs and decorations to hang on their tables in order to create a sort of brand recognition to go along with their dish. I saw the “Poughkeepsie Original Famous Masterpiece” team arranging a number of tattered briefcases and old glass vials atop a Persian rug. “Business as Usual,” the next stand over, was setting up pie charts and slipping into their blazer jackets and fedoras. One team, “Smoke n’ Sirens,” had managed to get a fire engine from the Hyde Park Fire Department parked next to their tent, and were dressed in firefighting helmets and red suspenders. Mexican flags and Texan trinkets hung from every other window, and it seemed like almost as much preparation had gone into the décor as the chili.

I took my place at the far end of the line and slowly began the long process of convincing myself that the wait was worth enduring for free chili. Eventually, even the event staff thought the line was unreasonably long and began walking up and down the column of people, handing each a ballot.

The team behind “Old Skool” was dressed in the traditional colors of the Pac-Man ghosts and presented their chili samples with garnishes of cilantro, cheese, and crackers. The chili was meaty with a heat that built gradually, but was more or less assuaged by the coolness of the cheese and the distinct herbiness of the cilantro. I asked the blue ghost about the chili: “Well, people really seem to love the garnish from what we’ve seen. It looks good, but it also adds a lot to the temperature and texture of the chili. We took a very Mexican approach to making this, almost like we were making a mole.”

Moving on, I sampled the chili from a number of other groups until I came upon the “Walla Walla Rabbit Whackers,” who took a novel approach to their seasoning. “We actually didn’t use any chili powder. We’ve got here what we’re calling the Twelve Chili Chili, a blend of a bunch of different peppers we roasted and mixed with San José tomatoes. We’ve also got milk and bread available to have afterwards, just to help smooth the flavor out.” As I tasted their chili, I noticed the distinct fattiness of the brisket and a sort of creaminess. There didn’t seem to be much spice, but that could have been the culmination of five or six different chili samples on the back of my throat. The milk was certainly a welcome reprieve.

Decorated to look like a fire station and accompanied by a small fire engine, the “Smoke n’ Sirens” tent appeared. Their chili had a very distinct whiskey taste to it, but with a thick meatiness that seemed lacking in a number of the other submissions. “As per the rules, our chili is eighty percent beef with some venison to give it a little gaminess. We added Jim Beam and mixed in our own chili powder,” explained a man dressed as a Dalmatian. “We have to be back here because they don’t want us parking the fire truck on the soccer field, but despite being way back in the boonies, I feel that today has been quite a success.”

Several teams went for a sweeter approach and some incorporated a small amount of chocolate per serving. There were a few chilies that were almost watery but from what I saw, every team did exceptionally well.

At around 3 p.m., the event staff held a few contests for the tasters, including a blindfolded spice identification match and a raffle for Visa gift cards which surprisingly, few people claimed. The band played an assortment of music for about an hour, and Chef McCue took the stage:

“First of all, I’d like to thank Chef Heywood for being with us today. He organized the very first Chili Cook-Off twenty years ago, which some of your parents could tell you about I’m sure.” Chef Heywood chuckled and shook his head slightly. “And now, what we’re all here for. Let’s announce the winners!”

The Professionalism Award ended in a tie between “Smoke n’ Sirens” and “Texas Heat II,” both of which made an effort to help their competitors near the start. The Showmanship Award went to “Smoke n’ Sirens” for their outstanding use of a fire truck in their tent display. The People’s Choice Award, decided by the ballot majority, was won by “The Frontrunners.”

Another member of the staff walked up on stage carrying a rusted soup pot set atop a pedestal. Chef McCue, the announcer, resumed: “And now, it’s time for the judge’s decision. As you walk through the Student Recreation Center, many of you have noticed this fine trophy, and may have wondered if you’d ever have the chance to one day call this trophy your own. Today, one team will have the honor. Third place goes to…huh, it’s spelled wrong. ‘Old Skool’!”

The team stood to receive their check and shake Chef Heywood’s hand. Chef McCue continued, “Second place goes to ‘Texas Heat II’!”

“And finally, the winner of the 20th Annual Chili Cook-Off is…’Team Smokes A Lots’!”

The crowd applauded Allen Casey, Adam Brach, Kameron Kurashima, Dexter Ingethrone, and Nick Chiaroof as they took their prize. “It’s unexpected, to be sure, but we had a good complex flavor to our chili, and I think it’s that dimensionality that really did it for us.” When asked what they planned to do with the cash prize, they responded “We’re planning to all go out as a team after this, but obviously some of it will be put towards education.”

I pulled my jacket on tighter as I walked away from the soccer field and through the campus. It was beginning to cool down again, and if my orange-stained lips and newfound appreciation for the subtle nuances of chill were any indication, it had been a good day. So congratulations to everyone who competed in the recent Chili Cook-Off and especially “Team Smokes A Lot.” To everyone else, we hope to see you next year!

View pictures of the Chili Cook-Off on Facebook!