A Fine Day for Chili

Out on my morning run, I saw a couple deer mating. And I knew it was going to be a good day.

For it was the Saturday of the Topanga Chili Cook-Off and Swap Meet, which my friend Nonie — who is on the board of the Community Club — had coerced me into entering.

Tom and his chili paddle

Tom and his chili paddle

Last year, I was a judge alongside my pal Ernie. There were two chilis entered, neither of which were very good. “I think the best chili was the one they were selling at the concession,” I said to the gal running the event.

“But that came from a can!” she protested.

This year, the competition would be more robust. There were eleven contestants, I was told. I chose to enter the “Traditional Red Chili” category — meat, no beans. There were also categories for vegetarian/vegan/raw chili — which I expended great verbosity ridiculing as antithetical to the very idea of chili — and a “People’s Choice” category in which your chili could include beans or pasta or whatever else you wanted.

The Chili Man and new friends/chili admirers

The Chili Man and new friends/chili admirers (photo by Tom with the chili paddle)

I arrived at 8:30 a.m. to get set up. The cook-off guidelines had promised a 10 a.m. start time to the cooking, with judging at 1:30. But being Topanga, rules are always somewhat malleable and I was cooking by 9, figuring the extra hour would give my chili more time for the flavors to develop.

A couple tables over, lovely friend Kali of Savraw farm box was making a vegetarian chili that was a beautiful, vibrant shade of magenta from the beets she’d used. When I saw her preparing to put kale in her chili, I told her she was disqualified. But despite lacking the usual characteristics of cumin, chili powder and onion salt, her entry had a deep chili flavor from the assortment of fresh chiles she’d used.

Nearby, contestant Stacy was food processing macadamia nuts and some sort of wheat like grain, making a raw vegan chili that was also surprisingly good. And I was required to eat my previous words of dismissal about such sorts of non-traditional chilis.

Speaking of non-traditional chilis, a cheerful chap named Orin was making a Moroccan lamb chili that filled the contest platform with exotic scents more reminiscent of a souk than a Southwest swap meet. Beside him, Ernie was making his famous Tuscan chili with sausages and Italian spices, completing the international section of the cook-off.

Giving me competition in the traditional camp was my pal Dan, with whom I was sharing a table and a 12-pack of Negro Modelo, and the young guys next to me who were frying bacon and pouring pale ale into their chili. Each competitor was building up their flavors slowly and deliberately, browning meats and deglazing fondants.

I was freestyling. I brought lots of beef — t-bone, short ribs, rib eye, chuck and sirloin — and some pork: jowls, ground shoulder and country ribs. I had my own hand-ground chile mixture, a variety of spices, some IPA and chicken broth, some Have’a corn chips to crumble in for masa flavor, and a few other odds and ends I’d grabbed on the way out. As my chili developed over the course of several congenial hours of chili camaraderie, it developed the depth and character I had been going for.

I wandered down to the pie table. There was also a pie contest, and it looked like there were seven or eight entrants, including one from our friends Heather and Alex which their children had helped bake. Two cute young women were standing by the pie table. One entry was a key lime pie with an elaborate frosting decoration. “Wow, look at that one!” I said.

“That’s mine!” said one of the girls.

“Is it okay if I stick my finger in the frosting?” I asked.

“I will kill you,” she said. “I know where to find you.”

Cute pie girls

Cute pie girls

Soon it was time for the judging. I filled my judge’s cup with chili — and added a large bone for good measure. I wasn’t sure if the judges would like my garnish or find it vulgar and unrefined. A glimpse of one dapper 50-ish+ guy judge with shoulder-length silver hair, a trimmed beard, fine clothes and preened fingernails led me to think the latter. And then the judging was over and ribbons handed out — best “traditional” chili was inexplicably awarded to Orin’s Moroccan lamb. I tried it, it was tasty, but it wasn’t a traditional red chili by any stretch of the imagination. But again, this is Topanga — where rules are more like suggestions. If I wasn’t going to win, I was at least glad Dan got 2nd place for a chili that was, in fact, traditional.

The cute pie girls came bounding onto the chili platform:

“We won!!” they screamed, and I gave them high fives. The key lime won best pie, the friend’s pie got second place.

I cleaned my area, packed up and headed out to a dinner party in Malibu, also attended by fellow losers Ernie and Heather and Alex, where the minor sting of not winning was soon washed away in tequila, conversation and — somewhat ironically — Moroccan food.

Next year I’ll be better prepared. My plan? Strip it down to the bare essentials — meat, chiles, salt, beer. And hope the slick guy with the silver hair isn’t judging again.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michelle
    Nov 11, 2014 @ 04:32:53

    Ah, the rut. We woke up this weekend to a large buck being killed in our front yard. Hey, even if you didn’t win, you had a better day than he did! (And you’re right. Never trust a food judge with “preened fingernails.”)


  2. Dan Shore
    Nov 11, 2014 @ 21:11:33

    Wow, you actually caught yourself talkin smack on video…Bitter Taste of Defeat indeed! Great post, ton’s o fun my dear Frenemy!


  3. jewel
    Nov 12, 2014 @ 16:46:34

    No matter what the subject, you never fail us, Sean! LMBO! Still think there should be a memoir someday….


  4. Trackback: A Chili in the Air | skinny girls & mayonnaise

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