The event itself was interesting to behold. The crowd was, shall we say, "eclectic." There were a series of tribute bands playing (think Led Zeppelin and John Mellencamp), so many people just showed up with folding chairs and camped out for the day in front of the stage. Competitors set up tented stands around the grounds with wacky decor to promote their chili, brunswick stew and corn bread offerings. Clearly entertaining the masses is a major part of this event, with visitors casting votes and even a prize for best showmanship. One couple wore matching chili pepper hats as they prepped their food for the hungry masses. Who knew there was chili inspired fashion?
The judging area was outside of the main event space. We sat at long tables under a tent, and the tables were well stocked with tasting cups, utensils, beverages and palate cleansing saltines. Our wonderful volunteer servers (also Camp Twin Lakes volunteers) served us up 6 competitive dishes at a time. In total, we sampled 24 chilis, 12 brunswick stews and 12 corn breads. Even though I only took one or two bites of each dish, those bites add up!
It was far more difficult to differentiate and judge so many dishes than I would have expected. After 15 chilis, what might have normally struck me like a mediocre chili, nearly made me gag. You'd think that anyone who enters a cooking competition makes a damn fine chili, but I now know that is not even close to true. There were in fact more grimace-inducing dishes than stellar ones.
We scored each chili, brunswick stew or cornbread on three metrics - tenderness, taste and appearance. Tenderness was a tough category for me to judge. Isn't most long-cooked meat pretty tender? It's even harder to tell if it's tender when it's ground to the point of not requiring chewing as many chilis and brunswick stews were.Appearance was pretty straight forward fortunately - I favored chilis that had a moderately thick consistency and evenly sized small pieces of meat and any vegetables over any that had boulder sized chunks or a watery or overly thick consistency. I don't want my chili to look like vegetable soup or a bowl of ketchup. Blech!Taste, obviously, is all a matter of preference. I love Cincinnati style chili, with it's overt cinnamon flavor, and I enjoy a notable beer flavor in more traditional chilis. However, I heard other judges say they didn't like these flavors. The offerings that heavily featured tomato sauce, soy or smoky flavors were less appealing to me. Some of these competitors definitely need to find a new hobby!
Brunswick stews were also a mixed bag. I preferred the very traditional versions with small chunks of vegetables and chicken or pork and not too much potato. Some of the worst versions had too large chunks or atypical brunswick stew flavors. I once wrote a 20-page paper for my Southern Folklore class in college about Brunswick stew, so I know my stew! Yes, it turns out there is a lot of history to this Southern bbq accompaniment, and it typically includes chicken or pork, bbq sauce or tomatoes and garden veggies like lima beans and corn.
Finally came the cornbreads. Thank goodness, it's hard to make cornbread that is too offensive. I had never before seen pancakes style cornbread, but there were several competitors that came out in small silver dollar sized disks. These had less fresh corn flavor and more cornmeal emphasis, but were actually quite good. My favorite, though, was a rather dense, but not mealy version, that had chunks of smoky bacon in it. Yum! Even though I was stuffed by this point, I could have eaten more of that!When all the scoring scantrons were filled out 3- hours later, we were stuffed to bursting. I also came away with a much better sense of what I enjoy in these classic dishes. I am including some recipes below that I have not prepared before, but they are in keeping with what I enjoyed most in the competitors.
For a volunteer gig, I can't imagine much that would be more fun than judging a cooking competition. Keep an eye out for other opportunities to volunteer for Camp Twin Lakes. I can't promise they all involve stuffing your face, but it is a wonderful cause and a great group of volunteers.
I can't vouch for these recipes, but I looked at a variety to find two that most closely resembled what I most enjoyed at the Chili Cook-Off.
From Southern Living
Makes 8 servings
3 medium-size new potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 (18-ounce) bottle barbecue sauce
1 (14-ounce) can chicken broth
1 (9-ounce) package frozen baby lima beans, thawed
1 (9-ounce) package frozen corn, thawed
6 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Trim roast and cut into 2-inch pieces. Stir together all ingredients in a 6-quart slow cooker.
Cover and cook on LOW 10 to 12 hours or until potatoes are fork-tender. Remove pork with a slotted spoon, and shred. Return shredded pork to slow cooker, and stir well. Ladle stew into bowls.Cinicinnati Chili
Servings: Makes about 8 cups, serving 6.
Ingredients3 onions, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 pounds ground beef chuck
1/3 cup chili powder
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon dried orégano, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
1 bay leaf
3 cups water
a 16-ounce can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
2 tablespoons molasses
spaghetti, kidney beans, chopped onion, grated cheddar, and oyster crackers as traditional accompaniments if desired