Judging the Chili Cookoff: good taste, warm feelings

By Harriet P. Gross
Last year, at the 2007 Kosher Chili Cookoff, I wandered around among the many tables, tasted the offerings of a half-dozen eager cooking teams, clutched my stomach and declared I’d had enough.
Last week, at the 2008 Cookoff, I sampled all 40 of the chili entries, washed them down with copious swallows of bottled water and diet Coke, cleared my palate with bits of bagel and wished I’d brought my gastroenterologist along for advice and support.
Being a judge for this annual Dallas Jewish community event is an experience like no other! And this year I shared that experience with a culinary professional, a seasoned veteran of Texas’ iconic Terlingua Chili Cookoff, a visitor from Ohio who hopes that maybe our local event can be replicated in his own Jewish community and a real judge who presides in the Texas court system. All of us were serious about what we had to do, and had a heck of a lot of fun doing it.
The judging system itself is the essence of fair; nobody ever knows whose chili is being tasted. We all sat down at noon on three sides of a large square table holding only a few essentials: paper towels, piles of tiny plastic spoons, bottles of water and cans of soda, a couple of plates stacked with an assortment of bagels. (The individual packages of saltine crackers that had been on the table when we first entered the tasting room were quickly and quietly whisked away after someone belatedly noticed that they were dairy rather than parve!)
The person in charge, this year Jeff Seymour, sat on the table’s fourth side, with pencils and a paper grid in front of him. This is what would happen, he explained: 40 little cups of chili would be brought, one at a time, to each of us for individual sampling. Every cup was numbered, and all five of us would receive one with the same number at the same time. Our job was to taste each sample and assign to it our own individual rating on a scale of one to five, one being the equivalent of “Try again next year,” five being “By George, you’ve got it!”
We did not consult with each other on our rating numbers or try to arrive at consensus; in fact, variations were often the norm. This is how we all found out for sure that “hot” and “bland” mean very different things to different people … that some folks like their chili smooth while others enjoy easily identified pieces of various peppers, onion and garlic surfacing in the mix … that grease has lip-smacking appreciators as well as sour-faced detractors … and that one person’s rating of two or less could be another’s four or more.
One judge said afterward that he ate every bit of the first three or four samples put in front of him because he was hungry, but he quickly learned to do what the cautious rest of us had done from the start: taste only one tiny spoonful first. Sometimes — especially if someone really liked or really disliked a particular cup’s contents — that one was quite enough. But most often it was necessary to consider longer, mulling over a second or third little taste. When we were done with each sample, Jeff went around the table, asking us for an open announcement of our individual numerical ratings, writing them down in five columns opposite that sample’s number on his grid. Finally, he added up our five individual ratings and put the total into a sixth column.
“Runners” brought us the numbered cups in batches and took away the unused portions of each before another sample was set in front of us. We weren’t shy about making some out-loud comments — and even a few jokes! — as we tasted, but we didn’t get into any lengthy conversations, and nobody tried to convince anyone else to upgrade or downgrade a sample’s number. Chili, we all learned, is a loose term with highly personal connotations: taste, texture, consistency and degree of heat are factors of varying individual importance, while seasonings can sometimes be identified but may please or displease even when they defy detection.
About halfway through, we feared we’d never finish, but somehow the end snuck up on us just about an hour after we started, more quickly than we had thought possible. Only then did Jeff tell us the identities of the three chilis that had our highest point totals, the trio of winners who would receive trophies when their names were announced later in the afternoon.
Tiferet Israel seems to pick a new team of judges every year for this major event, which is probably a good idea for both the competition and the individual tasters. A diverse quintet that includes both professional foodies and some strong-stomached individuals who ply other trades makes for a good mix of opinions. And after tasting 40 chilis in an hour, how many people would even want to sign on for a second round, anyway?
Well — I confess that I would. Judging our community’s 15th Annual Chili Cookoff was an adventure in (mostly) good eating, held in a comfortable setting shared with companionable people, featuring excellent organization and fairness beyond question. So if I were asked again, I’d say yes in a heartbeat! (Or, perhaps — in a heartburn.…)

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