I just returned from a week at Big Bend National Park and the Terlingua International Chili Championship. The Big Bend of Texas is a magical place. It is a vast desert dotted with amazing island mountain ranges. The Basin in the center of the Chisos Mountains is filled with alpine conifers and is also home to black bears, peccaries ( also know as javelinas), and mountain lions. There are many oases out in the desert with cottonwoods turning golden this time of year. The Rio Grande carves deep canyons as it makes its eponymous big bend. In the spring, especially after a rainy winter, a huge diversity of wildflowers turn the harsh landscape into an unparalled garden.
For many, all of this natural beauty is secondary. These are folks who are waiting for the annual Terlingua International Chili Championship. The cook off began in 1967 with some of the legends of chili cooking. Unfortunately as often happens in nascent organizations, there was a falling out with the division into two competing organizations, the Chili Appreciation Society Internationa (CASI) and the International Chili Society (ICS). For a time, the two organizations held competing contests just a short distance from one another – and in fact ICS continues to have a cook off “behind the store” where the original contests were held. But ICS branched out across the country and then began to have what it billed as the “World Championships” in California and other places. This year’s event was held in Manchester, New Hampshire. Still, the CASI event continues to be the granddaddy of cook offs and remains true to its roots in Terlingua, a nearby semi-ghost mining town.
Susan and I attended the CASI cook off to see our old friend, Reggie Graves, who has returned to competitive chili cooking after a break of several years. Reggie is known by everyone at the contest because of his friendly spirit and because he cooks up a mean pot of chili. Everyone there seemed glad to have him back.
This year marked the 45th cook off, and although most of the competitors are from Texas, many come from all over the United States and even other countries. This is truly the big-time, because cooks must qualify by winning enough points awarded in sanctioned local and regional contests throughout the year. There are hundreds of RVs and tents set up in little villages across the desert for days before the contests start. Everyone seems to be having a good time, and there is plenty of beer to go around. Lots of crazy hats and a few outrageous costumes. In the area known as Krazy Flats you may even see a fair bit of skin. Of course, the big event is the chili cook off on Saturday, but lots of other cooking contests are held earlier in the week: salsa, beans, wings, barbecue, and desserts among them.
Chili is a truly American dish (some say a truly Texas dish), and nearly everyone has his or her favorite recipe. More than that, nearly every home chili cook believes that his or hers is the best chili on the planet. Firehouse cooks achieve their fame with their chili, and grandmas make their chili for special family occasions. Some recipes call for tomatoes. Some recipes call for beans. Some recipes call for fresh hot peppers. About the only things that most chilis have are meat and chili powder.
Competition chili is different. More than one person has declared that competition chili is not intended to be the evening meal. Its purpose is to highlight the skills of the cook to use the essential ingredients, meat and chili powder, better than anyone else. One thing is certain: you will never find beans or tomatoes in competition chili. You will also not find chopped onions or minced garlic. One explanation for this is that the judging is supposed to be strictly anonymous, and if a bit of onion or a garlic clove should turn up in the competition cup, it might signal the identity of the cook.
Competition chili recipes adhere to a common ritual with five basic steps: (1) preparation of the meat, (2) cooking and preliminary seasoning of the meat, (3) addition of chili powder, pepper, and other seasonings, sometimes called “the first dump”, (4) addition of fresh chili powder and other seasonings shortly before serving the chili, sometimes called “the second dump”, and (5) preparing and filling the styrofoam cup to be turned in to the judges. Of course, competitive chili cooks all have their own secrets for every step in the process. And fashions come and go. For example, years ago, winning was impossible without using carefully cubed chuck roast; now nearly everyone uses coarse ground beef. Some cooks use packets of ketchup from their favorite fast-food restaurant. Everyone has his or her favorite mix or mixes of chili powder. Some folks even throw in a little grape jelly! Who knows what other secrets are out there?
Speaking of chili powder, the stuff that competition cooks use is different from the ground chiles (note the spelling difference) used in Mexican and New Mexican cooking. Chili powder comes pre-mixed with different combinations of ground chiles, garlic powder, ground cumin, ground oregano, other ingredients, and usually silicates to keep it from lumping. There are also light and dark versions depending upon the chiles used and the degree of roasting. Most cooks buy their spices from a couple of spice merchants in the Fort Worth area and/or use bottled powders from Mexene, one of the sponsors of the event.
The recipe that follows is an amalgamation of those of several previous champions, including Jerry Hunt of Shreveport, LA, the 1990 champ. No secrets are included, and don’t expect to win even a local contest with this recipe, but it will give you a starting place if you want to become a competitive chili cook.
2 pounds ground beef, coarse grind, 20% fat
1 Tablespoon cooking oil
1 Tablespoon onion powder
8 ounces unsalted tomato sauce
14½ ounces (1 can) beef broth
2 Tablespoons (divided) light chili powder
3 Tablespoons (divided) dark chili powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon (divided) ground cumin
½ teaspoon red pepper
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon chicken granules
1 teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon brown sugar
1 package Sazón Goya
Brown the meat in the cooking oil, adding the onion powder while stirring
When the meat has browned, add the tomato sauce and beef broth. Stir to combine and cook for 30 minutes.
(First Dump) Combine 1 Tablespoon of light chili powder, 2 Tablespoons of dark chili powder, garlic powder, salt, ½ Tablespoons ground cumin, red pepper, black pepper, and chicken granules. Add the mix to the meat, stir to combine, and cook at a simmer for 1 hour.
(Second Dump) Combine 1 Tablespoon of light chili powder, 1 Tablespoon of dark chili powder, paprika, ½ Tablespoon cumin, brown sugar, and Sazón Goya. Add the mix to the pot, stir well to combine and cook at a simmer, covered for 30 minutes. Add water and salt if needed.
While the chili is cooking, prepare the “turn-in cup” by coating the inside with a little of the chili. Discard or taste the extra.
Transfer some of the finished chili to the prepared “turn-in cup” and make your way to the judging stand.