Monday Musings: Chili, Competing Again, and Recovery

We cooked at the New England Regional Chili Cook Off on Saturday. It was in Somers, CT, where we have been many times for chili cook offs. Of course, most of the time over the past four years, we have been there in the judging area, either as Chief Judge and Scorekeeper, or helping those who are. This year, we were doing neither of those things. So, why, after four years, did we decide to cook again—

It was late one night a few months ago, and we were sitting and talking about all things chili: our schedule for the upcoming season, the number of cook offs in general, and where we were likely to be for the summer season. We originally thought that we would go to the NERCC as spectators only. You know, walk around, visit, talk to folks, maybe judge a category or two. And, then (I suspect after one or two too many gin and tonics), we started thinking “Oh, but, hey- we COULD go and cook again!” The idea got tossed back and forth a bit, and suddenly, we were signed up and cooking. I suspect it was the gin and tonics, or else we were channeling Pink Floyd and had a “Momentary Lapse of Reason”!

Y’know what? It’s still a lot of work to cook one of those things! LOL Not to mention that all our stuff has been stored for four years and needed sorting and cleaning. But we got ‘er done and did the thing.

How did I do? Well, I thought my salsa was pretty good. I got all of 2 points, with mostly good comments. I liked my verde. I got five points, again with mostly good comments. A few less than happy with the meat texture, and the consistency, but I knew that last was borderline as far as being too thick, so not surprising. I didn’t want to risk trying to thin it right before turn in, because that often results in soupy, too thin chili. And my red. Oh, yes, my red. I was happy with the color for once. I was happy with the consistency for once. But I thought it was salty, grainy textured, and the meat overcooked, although the flavor in the meat was really good. I got 8 (yeah, 8) points on the preliminary table and made the final table! Go figure. Only two points on the final table, but just getting there with a pot I wasn’t happy with was good enough for me. That’s the way it often goes, though. When you are least happy with your pot, you do well.

For those of you who have never been to one of these things, after the winners are announced, cooks can go look at the judges’ sheets. Each judge tastes all the entries (yes, you can taste more than once) and picks their top three bowls. They are also supposed to write a comment for each one, although some judges don’t comment on every bowl, and some Chief Judges don’t remind them to. The idea is that as a cook, you can often learn what you are doing right- or wrong!- from the comments. The reality is that the comments are often all over the place. A few examples from yesterday:

On my salsa: One judge commented: “Excellent texture.” The very next sheet (and there is no guarantee those two tasted one after the other. It was just the order of the sheets on the table after.) read “Texture gross”

On my red final table sheets: One judge “Needs cumin.” Next sheet “Too much cumin.”

Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out what to tweak, or to not change anything at all, from a set of judges’ comments. When we were competing regularly, I wrote down all my comments in a notebook. That way, I could go back and see if there were any trends across all the judges because it’s hard to remember all the comments in a week or two. For example, if one judge says your bowl is too salty, well, that could just be someone who doesn’t use a lot of salt. If three or four say that, you might think about how much salt you add. I would also go back at the end of the season and see if there were trends across all the cook off, because there’s where you get the most mix of judges, palates, and opinions. In the end, it’s like I always said “Cooking and winning is 20% science, and 80% voodoo!”

Would I do it again? Yeah, actually, I might do this one again next year. We’ll see.

As I said above, it is a lot of work, and a long day. We got to the site about 7:30 Saturday morning, and left between 5:30 and 6:00 in the evening. The crowd was good once the sun came out, and in addition to cooking our competition chili and salsa, we served about eight gallons of People’s Choice, plus what was left of our verde and red competition chilis. It was a busy day.

Sunday was rest and recovery. Really didn’t do a lot. Unpacked most of what needed to come back in the house out of the car, emptied the coolers so they could dry, and wrote this post. Just a nice, quiet day to settle in and relax.

That was my weekend. I hope yours was as good.

(Picture is my chili team (Rock’N’Roll Chili) logo)

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