We poked around the mills today — spectacular textures. Exploring the crumbling buildings felt like being on vacation in our own town. That’s the iconic Housatonic water tower in the background.
Carol Hancock is president/CEO of the International Chili Society (ICS). Founded in 1967, the ICS is a non-profit organization that sanctions chili cookoffs with judging and cooking rules and regulations. It is one of the largest food contest festival organization in the world, having sanctioned 200 cookoffs world wide with over one million people tasting, cooking, judging, and having a great time while raising over 91 million dollars for charities. All winners of ICS sanctioned cookoffs qualify to compete for cash prizes and awards at the World’s Championship Chili Cookoff held each year in October.
I am delighted to announce that John Jepson, who won this year’s $25,000 grand prize for his traditional red chili, has agreed to share his winning recipe and cookoff tips in my Chili Cookoff in a Box to be published by Andrews McMeel next summer.
Gina: What are the benefits of holding an ICS-sanctioned chili cookoff?
Carol: The biggest advantage to an ICS-sanctioned event is the opportunity to compete at the World’s Championship Chili Cookoff. ALL competitors are pre-qualified by being a first-place winner in whichever category they pursue. ALL sanctioned events are held for charity. Upon approval by the ICS to hold a sanctioned event (this is done by application and our personal approval), the ICS provides absolutely everything a cookoff chairman needs to hold the event (i.e. ballot sheets, ICS logo judging cups, tips for advertising, acquiring sponsors, etc., a Chief Judge, Chief Scorekeeper, Certified Chili Judges, timing, etc.) This can all be accessed through our website if you need more information. From a members’ point of view, they enjoy being part of the huge ICS chili family and are proud of the charity dollars that they help acquire.
Gina: Do you have any tips for chili cookoff contestants?
Carol: Follow the rules of the ICS, use the freshest ingredients and high-quality meat and have fun! If you win, don’t change the recipe that you used to win! Don’t make the mistake of “sprinkling” powders or adding ingredients without taking note of the changes. How will you win the WCCC with the same “winning recipe” unless you remember what it was?
Carol: Judges are usually invited by the cookoff chairmen – sometimes city officials, restaurant chefs, mayor, etc. It’s always good to have seasoned judges that have participated in other events – they will generally make themselves known. The ICS is currently offering classes in our new Certified Chili Judges (CCJ) classes. At some point in the future, CCJ’s will be given preferential position to judge ICS events over non-certified people. ICS will always accept VIPs, local choices of judges by the organizers, sponsors who want to judge, etc.
Gina: Do you have any advice for chili cookoff judges? How best to pace themselves and what criteria should they use to evaluate the chili?
Carol: Taste is the number one consideration. We advise a small taste to start, taste as many times as necessary to arrive at your choices and clear your palate between chilies. Our website clearly defines the judging criteria and details are taught in the CCJ classes.
Gina: What makes the difference between a good chili and a great one?
Carol: The spices and high-quality meat.
Gina: Chili seems to inspire extraordinary passion. Why do you think that is?
Carol: It seems to have established that attitude all by itself. I’ve never mentioned the ICS without the comment “I love chili!” Chili is a controversial dish. There are so many varieties and recipes – hence the very first cookoff in 1967. Everyone thinks they or someone close to them makes the Best Chili In The World. We invite them to join the ICS and prove it.
Andrea Lynn is a freelance food writer and recipe developer, who spent a couple years as Senior Editor at Chile Pepper magazine, where she developed and tested recipes for the spice-obsessed audience. This spicy expertise landed her on Martha Stewart Radio discussing her recipe for Sriracha Wings and as a bhut jolokia expert on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Also, she wrote weekly blog posts on fiery food for Serious Eats. In addition to still contributing to Chile Pepper, her past gigs have included recipe editing for MarthaStewart.com, plus editorial and corporate recipe development. She is the author of the recently released, The I Love Trader Joe’s College Cookbook.
Gina: Do you have any advice about using chili powder vs. fresh or dried chiles for making chili? Is one better than another?
Andrea: I think it can be a personal preference. I think the average chili competitor knows this but I think it should be pointed out that chili powder purchased in the grocery store isn’t what you’re looking for. It’s a combination of chiles—most of which you may not know the name or are just throwaways. At the end of the day, it just doesn’t have a ton of flavor.
I’m in love with New Mexican Red Chile powder, so I often reach for that if I’m making chile using chili powder. If I have more time for the chili recipe, I’ll most certainly use dried chiles—usually a variety of them—and then remove them after they are hydrated, remove the seeds, add them back into the base, and puree. I think that dried chiles add more of a complexity to the dish. Also, if you toast the chiles prior to using them in the chili, it adds even more of a layer of complexity, which I feel like is what you are after in a bowl of chili. When someone tastes the chili, they know it’s outstanding but can’t pinpoint what makes it so. As for fresh chiles, I’ll use them mostly to garnish the chili – depending on the spice level I want, I might pump it up with fresh chiles to top the chili.
Gina: Can you recommend any good online sources for chile peppers?
Gina: What tools does one need to create one’s own chile blends?
Andrea: The first step is to know what you like. Taste a blend of spices and figure out what suits your palate. For me, I realized I like a little spiciness to be combined with the smoldering smokiness of spices like smoked paprika or chipotle powder. Experiment until you get a blend you like. Then, toast dried chiles just briefly in a sauté pan to deepen the flavor, and use a spice grinder (also known as a coffee grinder) to make a blend.
Gina: If one wanted to make “five alarm” super spicy chili, what would be the best chile peppers to use?
Andrea: Habanero or—if I dared—bhut jolokia powder.
Gina: Please walk me through the steps that you go through as a professional recipe developer when you taste a bowl of chili. What criteria do you use to evaluate it? Do you have a special technique for tasting? Is there a part of the tongue that’s best of tasting spice?
Andrea: As a recipe developer, part of it depends on the criteria of the recipe. Sometimes, it needs to be a bowl of chili made in a hurry or it needs to be under a certain amount of ingredients. But—no matter what the criteria—I always aim to make a bowl of chili that differs from ones I have created previously. It’s the name of the job—I always want to experiment with ingredients that are new to me or different techniques, which translates into eating a bowl of chili unlike what I have tasted or made before.
To evaluate, I think it’s important to keep two things in mind: Cleanse your palate with dairy products so the heat hasn’t built up and you can have an accurate measure of the taste. Secondly, get the feedback of others.
Gina: What are the health hazards of cooking with chile peppers and tasting chili and what precautions and antidotes do you recommend? Can a person die from ingesting too much hot pepper?
Andrea: When dealing with chile peppers, always make sure to wash your hands repeatedly (and, yes, I’ve been guilty of touching my eyes with chile residue on my hand and regretting it very much). If you are dealing with using a large batch of chiles, invest in a box of latex gloves for the kitchen and use them. Also, know your tolerance—both in terms of how much heat you can take and how your stomach reacts to it.
I use dairy products to ease the pain of a chile overload on my tongue—sour cream, buttermilk, yogurt, or milk. As far as I know—no, you can’t die from ingesting too many chiles. I wrote a post on it because I was very curious, but the doctor seemed to say that the worst thing that would happen is your stomach won’t be a happy camper.
As far as an antidote, once I was using Scotch bonnets and vinegar to make a hot sauce. I had the window opened but I guess cross-ventilation is important because the fire in the air from the chiles was so strong that tears were streaming down my face. And my roommate and her boyfriend ran out of the apartment coughing and wheezing. Yeah, I can’t say they were too thrilled with me at that moment!
Gina: What are the most interesting “secret ingredients” you’ve come across in chili recipes?
Andrea: Hmmm, I think peanut butter is a weird one that I’ve come across. (Of course, I’m not the biggest pb fan, so that could be why it sounds so odd to me.) Other ones are cocoa powder or chocolate, coffee/espresso, grape jelly (a man I interviewed swore by the grape jelly add-in), cloves, raisins.
Gina: What’s your personal favorite kind of chili?
Andrea: I made a Double Pork Chili (which has both chorizo and pork ribs) with Cornbread Croutons that is one of the favorite chili recipes that I’ve created.
I would say though when I first started working at Chile Pepper, the green chilies were a revelation to me. I had never been exposed to green-based chilies as a kid, and I fell in love with them. Nothing beats the nostalgia of a bowl of red, but green chili comes a pretty close second.
Gina: Why do you think people love spicy food?
Andrea: I think there’s a certain addiction when it comes to spicy food; you’re always striving for spicier, smokier, and/or that nasal-clearing burn. Whether it’s the tingle of a Szechuan pepper or the sting of a habanero, it’s all very crave-worthy.
Gina: So many people are passionate about chili. Why do you think that is?
Andrea: Everyone has a way they make chili—their own special way of doing it, their own blend of meat, the with-or-without beans factor, and a secret ingredient or two. It’s a source of pride—your own original concoction of ingredients that makes your chili the best.
Gina: Why do chili cook-offs matter?
Andrea: Throughout all the interviews I’ve done with chili cook-offs winners, the things that appeared over and over were passion and camaraderie around the cook-offs. At some level, it became about so much more then just a pot of chili or perfecting a recipe to win, but it was about the friendships that had formed over the years.
I asked McKinney, Texas-based food scholar Sharon Hudgins why she thinks chili inspires such passion. Here is her insightful answer:
“Chili in its purest—that is, Texas—form is easy and inexpensive to make, but when it’s done well, it has layers of flavors that provide both psychological comfort and gustatory pleasure. The meat protein makes you feel full in the stomach and powered up for whatever comes your way. The chiles provide the heat that give the dish its capsaicin kick, setting off your endorphins and making you feel good on a higher level than just having a full stomach.
The subject of chili is as controversial as Texas is big. Even Texans don’t agree about the ‘correct’ composition of this dish. Those who like to add pinto beans (and even tomatoes) to it are shunned by the purists—but a substantial segment of the population persists in thinking (rightly so) that chili with beans is a pretty good combination, too. The real rub is when Texans are served chili from other places, such as Cincinnati chili with kidney beans (!) and spaghetti (!!).
And don’t even let a true Texan get near a bowl of California chili, with its effete additions of black olives, avocado slices, shredded cheese, and sour cream. In my humble opinion, I think this is a really seductive combination of ingredients—but I can’t admit it because I still have to live in Texas. However, I do think that every time you add another ingredient to the basic recipe of meat, chiles, and onions, you’re diluting those fundamental flavors and creating a dish that’s different from what many Texans consider a true ‘bowl of red.'”
Sharon Hudgins is an award-winning author of four books and more than 700 articles published in magazines, newspapers, scholarly journals, and on the Web. A former editor of CHILE PEPPER magazine, she has written several articles about chili powder and chili-the-dish. Currently she is the food editor of EUROPEAN TRAVELER and the food columnist for GERMAN LIFE magazine, USA. She also lectures on culinary, historical, and ethnographical topics on tours offered by National Geographic Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions, Silversea Cruises, and other tour companies. Her travel memoir, THE OTHER SIDE OF RUSSIA: A SLICE OF LIFE IN SIBERIA AND THE RUSSIAN FAR EAST, is now in its third printing, and she is writing a sequel about her further adventures in Russia. So far, she has survived 35,000 miles of travel on the Trans-Siberian railroad and several servings of raw mare’s milk in Mongolian gers.
Chicago native Doug Downing is the creator of Double D’s Sauces, a line of homemade hot sauces, spices, and salsas. His current products feature the intense heat and smoky sweet flavor of bhut jolokia (or ghost pepper), the hottest pepper in the world. He has judged more than 10 chili cook-offs, including the Illinois State Cook-off.
Gina: What are your favorite peppers with which to make chili?
Doug: Jalepeño and ghost for my “homestyle” chili, but for competition, your main heat comes from powders, such as hot chili powder, cayenne, and chipotle. On the competition circuit it is all about repeatability and that is not something you can get from fresh produce. A good example is a jalepeño pepper–sometimes they are very mild and others can be very, very hot.
Gina: What are the important criteria to consider when judging chili?
Doug: Color, consistency, aroma, and taste. Chili needs to be a deep red color. If it is true competition chili, there should be no fillers (beans, rice, etc)–only meat, preferably steak cut into quarter inch cubes. It should have a great fragrance, a hint of cumin, that makes you want to taste it. Once you do taste the chili, after letting it linger on your tongue, does it have the right heat? Flavor? Not too much cumin, which comes across as bitter.
Gina: What makes the difference between a good chili and a great one?
Doug: The right blend of heat and flavor. Cumin in the right quantity is what makes a competition chili. You can be first place one month and with the same recipe the next month you might come in dead last. There are nuances to different regions. Some like it hot and salty, some with more sweet, almost like BBQ sauce you just have to experiment.
Gina: What does it take to be a good chili judge?
Doug: An open mind and attention to detail. You have to weigh the color, aroma, and consistency with what you find appealing. Place even weight on each element so as not to exclude a great looking, smelling and textured chili just because it is a little sweeter than you like.
Gina: Do you have any tips for chili judges?
Doug: An open mind and consistency. Consistency brings credibility.
Gina: Do you have any tips for chili cook-off contestants?
Doug: Practice and hold true to your tastes. It takes a while to figure out how to cube the meat correctly and how to make a nice, deep red gravy (what the liquid is called). You have to make something that tastes good to you, because you cannot make everyone happy. Produce a product you feel is great.
Gina: You’ve participated in a lot of chili contests. What are the logistical details that need to be thought through? What elements make for a great chili cook-off?
Doug: Have a good reliable cassette burner. You have to bring and prepare everything on site with you (pots, spices, meat, measuring cups, spoons etc.). Be sure to do a run through so you know you can prepare it all with no outside help. I once forgot olive oil and my wife drove frantically around some small Chicago neighborhoods to find it for me in a nick of time. You can never be too prepared.
Gina: Why do you love chili?
Doug: It was a staple growing up and brings back great memories of fall days and family gatherings. We weren’t eating competition chili, but when doing competition chili the other cooks become a small family. It really is fun and relaxing.
Doug: I hate to show my age, but anything heavy metal, 80s hair bands really says chili to me.