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Goodbye, Old Friend Chili

Texas Chili

The iconic dish of the new world, chili, is dying a slow and painful death. Chili has been on the decline for some years; now it is terminal.

Chili is being degraded by the very thing that made it so popular, the chili cook-off. In the beginning, chili cook-offs were designed to promote and improve chili. The whole purpose of a chili cook-off is to find the best chili made that day. The chili cook-offs were begun by people who genuinely loved chili.

Today the majority of the "chiliheads" who enter the contests are turning out what I call Dip-and-Snip hamburger soup. They start with some hamburger, brown it so it will hold together and then stew it in liquid until it is done. They dip off the grease that has cooked out, and then the chili seasonings are added, and the hamburger is broken up to resemble chili grind. The favored instrument for breaking up the hamburger lumps is a pair of kitchen shears.

You cannot make chili from hamburger. The best you can do is chili sauce. I can say this as I have thirty-nine years of experience in the making and history of chili.

The first chili was made from the scraps created during the slaughter of beeves. (I have good friend who maintains that the first chuck wagon-type chili was made from chili grind. However, the meat grinder as we know it was not invented until early in the 20th century so, there goes that argument.) When I entered the chili world, the chili was made from chunks of meat. They were small and irregular. There was some chili grind around, but it seldom won.

In , Tom Nall and Bob Wilson won two consecutive cook-offs using precise cubes of meat about three-eighths of an inch in size. That started the cubed meat chili tradition. After the political split in , the cooks lobbied for and got some "chili grind only" cook-offs. That eliminated the need for them to cut up the meat and discard the connective tissue and fat. It was probably cheaper, too. How does this lead to the downfall of chili, you ask.

The cook-offs are recruiting civilians off the street to do the preliminary judging. I have long asserted that I can take judges off the street who like chili and get the same winners as the "trained" judges. But, the important phrase here is who like chili. The civilian recruits I have talked to say they do not necessarily like chili, and some said they had never tasted chili, but just wanted to see what it was like. So they sample the Dip-and-Snip and go away thinking it was chili.

Chili Cook-Off Newsflash

A good friend of mine who has been in the chili world even longer than I have. She was a finals judge at one of the big chili cook-offs in Terlingua last month. She reports that ninety-five percent of the "chili" on the final table was of the hamburger Dip-and-Snip variety. Her most polite comment on it was "Yuk!" She said there were two chilis with real meat in them. One of these received her highest score; the other got a high score just because it wasn't hamburger soup. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I looked up a couple of important chili recipes to see what kind of meat was called for.
  • Tom Dozier, the CASI chili champ calls for chili grind.
  • John Jepson, the winner of the ICS contest calls for lean tri-tip in 1/4-inch cubes.
  • The original Gebhardt's recipe (Gebhardt made the first commercial chili powder) calls for "meat chopped fine".
  • Adams recipe calls for coarse ground venison or cubed ground chuck, whatever that may be.
  • Mexene, another pioneer chili powder, calls for ground meat.
Anything can be called chili. There are vegetarian chili recipes, and chicken and turkey recipes. Ninety percent of chili recipes call for beans in one form or the other. Texas chili has no beans. As Texas is the birthplace of chili, chili has no beans.

Texas chili has no beans. As Texas is the birthplace of chili, chili has no beans. In the formative years, chili cook-offs were judged by so-called "celebrity" judges, usually five or six local individuals with name recognition. With seldom more than thirty entries turned in, this worked as well as anything. When the number of contestants grew, it was necessary to have preliminary rounds. At first, knowledgeable chili heads in attendance were picked to judge. They could be members of the cooking teams, but no cooks were ever allowed to judge their own product. (Except for me one time, and I won third place.)

I suppose that even team members got tired of judging chili several times a month or, in some cases, every weekend. That is where the civilian judges started coming in.

Today at chili cook-offs chili is supposed to be judged on aroma, red color, consistency, taste and aftertaste.

An experienced judge can tell by the smell if meat that has aged too long is used.
Red Color
Chili has never been red. Proper chili is a reddish brown. The red comes from New Mexico red peppers. All the chili I have judged in the past ten years has been brown. Like a pair of brown shoes. (Chili judges are not permitted to wear dark glasses while judging as it might impair the ability to determine the proper shade of "red".
This is a matter of personal preference as no test is described to go by. (At one time there was the "spoon test"; the chili had to be thick enough that a spoon inserted in it would stand erect.) Proper chili is not too thick or too thin. You decide.
It all boils or simmers down to the individual judge's preference. One that I like may be a spitter for you. Taste is what separates the winners from the losers.
This is that taste that is supposed to linger after you have swallowed. When you are at a table judging, you don't have much time to let aftertaste develop as you would hold up the line. You are supposed to cleanse your palate after each taste so the next chili will not be tainted by the earlier chili. (It may mean how it tastes after you belch the next day.)
Then there is the complication that some individuals "judge low" and others "judge high". Either they give high scores to each sample or they give low scores over all. The judges have to hide their score sheets from each other so they don't copy.

Aside from the high/low judging, you have the problem of using the same final judges at a local cook-off year after year. The same judges will usually pick the same winners, if they have the same cooks. The ideal would be to use chili heads for the preliminary judging and civilians for the final judging. I think using chili heads for preliminary judging would weed out much of the garbage that shows up on the final table.

Now we have another ogre appearing on the chili cook-off scene. You can now go to school and become a "certified chili judge". This will mean that you pay someone fifty to seventy-five dollars to tell you what is good chili. It will result in all the chilis being clones of each other. That is pretty well what is happening now, but you would have a card telling the world you have been to chili school.

Raven's solution to the chili problem

Divide the world into chili divisions. The sanctioning bodies would have eleven cook-offs in each division each year, one per month. The divisions could have as many unsanctioned cook-offs per year as they want. Once a year there would be the big Super Chili Bowl cook-off. It would be an open cook-off with a separate competition for the winners of the division competitions. The winner would get a nice chunk of change, plus bragging rights to being World Champion Chili Chef.

Right now, I'm going to Dairy Queen and get a hamburger made of one-half inch cubes of good beef.

I have spoke.

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