A Chili in the Air

If it’s early fall in Topanga, it must be chili time.

My ingredient list

My ingredient list

Every year, around the first weekend in November, the Topanga Swap Meet & Chili Cook Off rolls around. For a couple years, I was a judge. And then two autumns back, I was convinced by my friend Nonie who helps run the local community house to enter the contest, along with her husband Dan who was also entering.

We had a great time, he won some category or other. I, with my Mexican-inspired chili prominently featuring masa harina and melted American cheese, had not. (Perhaps I would’ve done better in a nacho cook off.)

Chili cooks, cooking off

Chili cooks, cooking off

Last year, I went with a more traditional chili, which also did not win (although several of my co-contestants objected that mine was in fact the best and should’ve won). My friend Kali won with her chili that featured whipped cream and strawberries, and I was skeptical of the legitimacy of the event.

But hope springs eternal. So when the Saturday morning rolled around, I put on my vintage Stetson, gathered up my camping stove, big wooden spoon and homemade chili powder, and set out for the community house.

My pal, Ernie

My pal, Ernie

Many of the same faces from years past were there — my pal Ernie, cooking in his usual spot across the table from me; the lads Julian and Trevor, boasting freshly ground bison from legendary Belcampo Meats, cooking in a sawed-off beer keg set atop their antique camp stove; Kali, putting a variety of curiosities including sunchokes and finger limes in her chili; Orin, reviving his 1st place Moroccan chili and cous cous from a few years back; and various other familiar folks whose names I could not recall.

For several hours, we all cheerfully cooked, passed each other tastes and asked advice, popped open beers and wandered the swap meet contemplating purchasing things we really didn’t need from people who no longer needed them themselves.

I’m a believer in letting my chili find it’s own path. “It’s got work to do,” I replied when people asked why I wasn’t bent over a chopping block or tweaking my brew as it cooked like the other contestants. Having gotten started at 8:30, I was pretty much done by 9:30, and for the next couple hours the chili would simply bubble away, the flavors melding, the beef breaking down.

My 10-year-old daughter, Willa, meanwhile was over at the pie table, where she had somehow talked her way into being a pie judge.

Willa judging the pies

Willa judging the pies

Around noon, a general feeling of panic crept in to the otherwise genial atmosphere, as the judges began to gather and samples where collected. (“My beans aren’t cooked enough!” a neighbor contestant worried.) I sprinkled the top of each of my five or six samples with the spiced pepitas I’d decided might give me an edge, and sent them off.

They dutifully and caringly tried each chili, and then tried it again. And compared it to the other chilis… And then it was time for the winners to step forward. In the traditional category, second place would go to… me. I accompanied my daughters to the podium to accept my red ribbon, which Willa attached to her shirt.

Ernie, Julian and me awaiting the results

Ernie, Julian and me awaiting the results

“Congratulations!” my chili co-contestants congratulated me as I returned to the cooking stage, and thanked them — while quietly pointing out to my pal Ernie that second place is actually losing. Fortunately, I was quite happy for the guy who won, who — if you have to lose — is a pretty good guy to lose to.

I took a glimpse at last year’s blog post, read my recipe, and realized that each year, I was including fewer ingredients than the previous year. Gone from last year’s recipe was the beer, pork bones, chocolate and mezcal. Last year was significantly pared back from the year before — that chili of masa harina and melted American cheese fame. Perhaps next year, I would have even fewer ingredients — maybe nothing more than beef, chiles, water and salt!

My pal Alex trying to get the last of my sold-out chili

My pal Alex trying to get the last of my sold-out chili

And whatever the case, win or lose, I would look forward to the real prize — a fun and festive morning with a great group of people mixing up tasty batches of chili.

Looking for a recipe for my second-place award-winning chili? Just throw all that stuff on the list above in a pot, and let it do its thing.

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kali
    Nov 11, 2016 @ 00:53:12

    I was in the wrong category last year. They did a better job with that this year. I loved your chili and those spiced pepitas!

    Reply

  2. Mom
    Nov 11, 2016 @ 01:05:21

    I think I woulda won with the chili I made this morning from leftover meatloaf crumbled up, home made pinto beans, a can of tomatoes, lots of chili powder and cumin and finally some home made picante enchilada sauce I had in the frig. I’ve got homemade delicata squash seeds but think I’ll opt for freshly fried up tortilla strips.

    Reply

  3. Amanda
    Nov 11, 2016 @ 11:31:39

    I’ve never won a chili contest… great job!

    Reply

  4. Michelle
    Nov 12, 2016 @ 02:17:43

    What were the judges thinking? Clearly you were robbed.

    Reply

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