Although it’s been a little over a month since I had the pleasure of being a judge for the 2nd Annual Simsbury Spooktacular Chili Challenge, I did not want to let any more time pass without recapping this great event.
Arriving about 30 minutes before the event began, I headed back to the “judges” tent where I met everyone involved. ALL (professional and non-professional judges) were given a tutorial as to the specifics of judging a chili competition as THIS competition was sanctioned by the International Chili Society.
We learned that one has to look for a combination of flavors AND that not one flavor should dominate the dish. To be a valid entry none of the entries could contain beans or pasta, something that I always have associated with chili. Beans, which are considered a filler, make the chili “homestyle” and were excluded from the competition.
In addition, each competitor would provide their entry in an official International Chili Society Cup, which would be numbered by Mike Kropp and his wife, so the entries would be tasted blind.
We were to use the “1 spoon, 1 taste” method so as not to cross contaminate the flavors of each entry AND lastly, because there were a lot of judges we were asked to only judge 2 of the 3 competitions that were in play that day – salsa, green chili, and red chili. Which ever category(ies) which were chose, it was asked that the judge did not taste any before the “official” judging so as 1) not to fill up and 2) not to give any entrant an unfair advantage.
BUT if those were not enough directions to make my head spin – we were told that THIS competition was a Regional International Chili Competition. Therefore the winner of each category had an automatic entry to the World Chili Championships, which took place the previous weekend in Reno, NV.
PHEW – no pressure, right???
After careful consideration, I decided to judge the entries in the Salsa (whose only restriction is that the entry cannot be bought) and Green Chili categories.
With some time before the Salsa entries were ready to be tasted, I wandered throughout the event which was hoping with couples and families. In addition to all the great chili for participants to taste, the event also had a costume contest and a opportunity for younger kids “trick or treat” at the various booths. It was a great idea for kids to get their Halloween treats with their parents nearby.
I headed back to the judges tent where I had a very nice conversation with Mitch H. – a chili judge for over 30 years. From him I received a very informative and educational learning session on the ins and out of not only making chili but also judging.
From him I learned that the participants only have 3 hours, from prep to service to tenderize and impart flavor in the meat. It’s the combination of aroma, flavor, and texture that makes a standout chili. Things such as the size and cut of the meat as well as how the tomatoes are prepped (fresh is better and they should ALWAYS be de-seeded and de-veined) can make or break a chili.
Pretty soon it was time for – Salsa judging!
I admit that I rarely make salsa on my own and as I stirred and dipped my spoon into the first entrant, I realized probably had a preconceived notion on what salsa was “supposed” to taste like. It boggled my mind that until a few years ago, the International Chili Society did not have a rule about entering a jar of Pace Mild Salsa and calling it a day.
Tasting the entries, though, reconfirmed the notion that fresh is always better. Yes – there were some entries that were better than others – some needed more spice and some had too much; some were too hot and some were too sweet. I made sure to give each a fair taste, cleansing my pallet with Seltzer between each entry (Thanks for the tip Mitch!). Judging done – I turned my judges sheet in and am happy to say that I picked one of the three winners. Not bad!
Again three was a bit of a break while the set up for the second category – Green Chili or Chili Verde.
This category had more entries – which uses “lighter” meats, like chicken and turkey. Again, I went around the table, cleansing my pallet with seltzer and a tortilla before each entry. This category was a bit harder for me and I will admit that I had to “revisit” a couple of entries before handing in my sheet. I ended up tasting 14 entries – and some of the differences were stark. From entries with over cooked-meat to those with meat so tender and flavorful that I wanted to take the entry cup home with me. There was even one that I mustered to swallow because it was “no bueno”. Once ballots were tallied I am happy to report that one of my entries placed!
Even though my judging duties were done, I hung around for the chili red category – which had 20 entries. I watched as the judges went round and round – taking special consideration to watch the Mitch H. as he tasted, tested, and smelled each entry.
It was a great day, although a bit windy and by the end I came away with a great appreciation for chili judging. In only it’s second year – the Simsbury Chili Spooktacular brought out some stellar and serious competitors from the region.
Some of the more seasoned judges even commented on how well run this event was – there was enough food for the patrons as well as a smattering of local businesses throughout the event. It was truly a community endeavor.
Thanks to the Simsbury Chamber of Commerce for putting on this great family, friendly event at the Simsbury Meadows Performing Arts Center. If you did not have a chance to make it out to this year’s event – make sure you check out their Facebook page to be “in the know” for next years event.
Lastly, thank you to Lisa Grey for this opportunity, I look forward to see what is in store for next years event.