A Chili Cook Off of One

Every early November somethingth, our cozy little canyon community has a chili cook off and swap meet. I have participated in the cook off the past four or five years. It’s always the same group of us — Tom, who brings his homemade wine and last year forgot to put his truck in park and we all watched as it rolled off the cliff; my pal Dan, who won last year but drank too much during the morning and was passed out in his van when his name was announced; the young duo of Julian and Trevor, who object whenever I don’t win. Nobody cares much who wins or loses, it’s a lot of fun.


I’ve never won. I came in second a couple years back. “Dude, you got robbed!” said Julian and Trevor, who won that year.

This year, the fire was not under the chili pots but in the mountains. I had purchased 15 or so pounds of various cuts of beef — tri tip, beef ribs, ground sirloin — toasted and ground my chiles and cumin, and was ready to go. It was Friday afternoon, the event being Saturday morning. I was at the community house where the cook-off was held at a kid’s party, and we all watched the plume of smoke rising in the west. Then I saw Kelly, who runs the community house.

“I heard you’ve been pre-prepping your chili! That’s not allowed!”

I replied: “Kelly, a few years ago a Moroccan lamb ‘chili’ won — that’s not a chili, it’s a cous cous sauce! And another year, a chili with strawberries and whipped cream won! And you’re worried about me pre-prepping??”

My chili judges

It was all a moot point anyway. There would be no chili cook-off. A couple hours later, the canyon would be closed, we would all be kicked out into refugee status. And this was the year I was going to win, I could feel it in my beef bones.

The event was officially “postponed” until the end of January. So I put my big bag of beef in the freezer and evacuated.

But there was a pretty solid chance it would be either raining or freezing cold at the end of January. By Thursday afternoon, nearly a week after the evacuation, most of the canyon had snuck back in — including many of our best friends. I opened the freezer and looked at the big frozen beef clump taking up roughly half of our rather small freezer space. Did I really want it there for the next two and a half months? I removed the bag to the counter and went to bed.

The next day, I decided to make the chili anyway and host a “chili party”, complete with plastic bowls, utensils and wine cups. I called a handful of friends and neighbors, all of whom were happy to be the consolation audience for my certain-to-have-placed-first chili.

“What’s your secret?” one friend asked, as if every chili cook-off contestant had a secret. Every year, I sort of wing it… Buy whatever meat I find on sale, grind my own chili powder, add lots of garlic and some beer. This year, I had smoked three beef ribs that I was adding for a nice smoky flavor (probably grounds for disqualification in a legitimate chili cook-off) and had included some rare dried chilhuacle chilies I brought back from Oaxaca.

The chili cooked all afternoon. For anyone with experience cooking chili, up until the three-hour mark, the mixture looks like beef-and-bean soup. Then something wonderful happens, as the fats and gelatins in the meat break down and it becomes a thick, rich, meaty porridge.

For all the meat I had cooked and thought we’d be donating leftovers to the hardworking firemen of Engine 69, I soon realized that accounting for the eight or nine kids also queueing up, I was barely going to have enough. I quick made some quesadillas to plant like flags in each bowl, and served it up.

There was much “ooo”ing and “ahh”ing amidst the inhaling of chili and gulping of beer. The chili was superb, perhaps my best ever. And maybe this year, I would’ve actually won! And then, when it was all done and the plastic was cleared, my children appeared from a back room with a big paper blue ribbon inscribed with my name and First Place — “Best Chile”. I dabbed my misty eyes, hugged everyone in the house, and overlooked the misspelling. I had won with the audience that counted the most.

Although I did wonder aloud who had won best Peru.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. nonieshore@gmail.com
    Nov 24, 2018 @ 18:09:41

    Congrats Sean! You deserve it my friend, and you never know what will happen in January…


  2. Amanda
    Jan 25, 2019 @ 18:21:16

    Awwww, best chili story I ever heard!


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