In which I dream of chili

I ended up judging all eight of the ICS categories at the chili cookoffs last night and this afternoon on the courthouse square.

I have judged every category at both cookoffs in the past, but back then there were only three categories per cook-off — salsa, traditional red chili, and chili verde (green chili). This year, a “homestyle” chili category was added.

Actually, after judging all four categories last night, I had intended to skip judging homestyle today. The rules in homestyle are a little looser, and I found it harder to judge, because you get both red and green entries. But there were so many entries in this year’s cook-offs that they needed split-table judging for most of the categories, and they were in a bind for judges to judge the homestyle finalists after two separate tables of judges had picked the favorites from their individual groups.

Calvin Cannon and Dicky Thorpe deserve a lot of credit for building this event over the past few years. This year’s turnout of ICS competitors was the biggest ever, with nearly 40 different entries. There was also a separate competition in traditional red today sanctioned by the other chili cook-off organization, CASI, the first-ever CASI competition in Shelbyville. Teams who wanted to could enter a bowl of their chili into the ICS traditional red class, and then dish out a separate bowl, from the same pot, for the CASI judging. CASI’s judging procedures are a little different.

In the past, there was an optional “People’s Choice” competition during the Saturday cookout. Teams had the option of bringing pre-made chili for “People’s Choice” tasting, but they weren’t required to, and on Friday night it wasn’t even an option. (The chili for the judges cannot be made in advance and must be cooked on-site during the designated contest period.) But ICS has changed its rules, and now if you plan to enter any of the chili categories, you must also enter “People’s Choice.” That meant there was “People’s Choice” tasting by spectators both Friday night and today.

The increased emphasis on People’s Choice and Homestyle categories — both of which include beans — is because ICS now has, wait for it, Bush’s Beans as a major sponsor. I don’t mind chili with beans, but when I cook at home, I prefer making traditional, “Texas-style” chili, with no beans and a thick, spicy gravy that permeates the meat. That’s what is judged in the ICS “traditional red” category and in CASI’s cookoffs as well.

As some of you know, I tried entering the traditional red competition two years ago. I did badly. I have wanted to try again ever since, but it just hasn’t come together. Here’s why:

  • Two years ago, I tried to do everything by myself. This is NOT something you can really do solo. I need to recruit someone — a teenager from church, somebody — to be my partner on the day of the cookoff.
  • I had borrowed a camp stove two years ago. I did try making a test batch on the camp stove, but I think it was windier on the day of the actual cook-off, and I had trouble controlling the temperature. I think I overcooked the chili and had some of it stick to the bottom. I am seriously considering buying a camp stove so that I can get a little more familiar with it between now and next summer. I probably need to spring for something the next level up from the $30 entry-level stove. I really wish there was some way I could use my Instant Pot, which is great for chili. There’s no rule against electric cooking, but it would require use of a generator, and I’ve never seen any of the other ICS competitors doing it. And in any case, I would need a way to keep People’s Choice chili warm while cooking my entry.
  • I always say I’m going to work on my recipe in the off-season, but it just hasn’t happened. I need to get more serious about it.

Happily, another ICS rules change makes it a little easier to enter the cook-off. In the past, you had to be a full member of ICS — which costs $60 per year— over and above the entry fee for the cookoff and, of course, the cost of your ingredients and equipment. That’s not a bad deal if you are someone like Dicky or his father-in-law, my childhood dentist Buddy Koonce, who travels around the country entering cookoffs. But it’s sort of an impediment for the casual cook. Now, ICS will let you buy much-cheaper restricted memberships which allow you to cook in only one event or in only three events. (The Friday and Saturday cookouts in Shelbyville would be counted as two separate events.)

I will have to give this some more thought and start making some plans for next year. Maybe Amazon will have a camp stove in the Prime Day sale on Monday….