My friend, Reggie, has invited me to cook with him at the upcoming California State Championship Chili Cook-Off. I have accepted the offer. He is fun to be around, and the competition is in California wine country.
Reggie is an excellent chili cook, and he has won many contests over the years. I have previously written about his exploits at the Terlingua International Chili Championship. I, on the other hand, have only entered one other contest, and that was over ten years ago.
Clearly, I don’t know what I am doing (There is nothing new about that!) so I have been reading about chili and practicing my chili cooking. Reggie was very generous in giving me his recipe for competition chili, but I wanted to know a little more about the ingredients and why things got added when they did. I made a practice run with his recipe, but I still needed more information. This is my report.
First, there is the matter of spelling. If you live in New Mexico, chile is spelled with an “E”, and everybody knows that refers to the plant, the peppers that grow on the plant, and the powder that is made by grinding up the peppers (also called ground chiles or – in Spanish – chile molido). If you live in Texas, chili is spelled with an “I”. Unfortunately, not everybody knows that the word refers to a meat and gravy concoction that includes a seasoning made up of ground-up chiles along with cumin, garlic, and other ingredients that is known as chili powder. To add to the confusion, there is an abandoned railroad line in New Mexico known as the Chili Line. I think it mainly carried forest products. In the UK, the peppers are called chillis, so there you are.
On top of all this, there are at least 200 different chiles, and new ones are being developed all the time. In the US Southwest, the most common chiles are New Mexicos, Anaheims, jalapeños, poblanos, serranos, güeros, Santa Fe grandes, habaneros, and arbols – among others. Then, if you smoke a jalapeño it becomes a chipotle. If you dry a poblano it becomes an ancho. The well-known Southwestern chef, Mark Miller, has put together a beautiful little book, complete with beautiful images, to make this understandable. The book is called, The Great Chile Book, published in 1991 by Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA.
It becomes clear that the spice master has a wide palette to choose from when he or she decides to grind up a batch of Texas chili powder. Besides, the chile can be left raw, smoked, dry roasted, etc., etc., giving a myriad of options, never mind the cumin (dry roasted or not) and the ingredients that are top secret. Getting the recipe for commercial chili powders is like asking about instructions for building an atomic bomb.
Then, there is the rivalry of various purveyors. Gebhardt’s and Mexene are two brands that may be available at your local grocery store, and they are still used in cooking competitions. Pendery’s has been making chili powders for over a ceentury, and Mild Bill’s has a following because champion cooks have used their chili powders. At both, the choices available to the buyer rival the choices in an upscale wine shop.
Fort Worth Light and the alternative Cow Town Light (Fort Worth is known as Cow Town, get it?), San Antonio Light, San Antonio Red, RT-Rio Tejas, Spice Mistress, and New Mexico Light are different mixes that have their own characteristics as well as guidelines as to when you add them during the cooking process. Timing is everything, because with cooking, the various powders lose their punch, and it is essential to have just the right balance of flavors at the minute the chili competition entry is turned in to the judges.
Is it any wonder that it takes years of practice and the refinement of a recipe to become a competitive chili cook who is repeatedly among the top entrants? I am clearly in over my head, but competitions are more than winning (REALLY??) There is the chance to have a beer – or more – with old friends. There’s the travel and seeing new places. It’s easy to see why folks can become what they call chili heads. I shall keep you posted on my progress and my success or lack thereof.