I'd never been to a chili cookoff before, and didn't know what to expect, but the banner sign has been hanging over the main street in Petaluma for a couple of weeks, and there was an announcement on Chowhound. What could I do -- it's only 7 minutes away, the sun was shining, so off I went.
It's inside and outside a building in the fairgrounds in Petaluma. Outside -- the beer tasting, a rotating group of bands providing atmosphere, and a festive bunch of people milling around, talking with eachother, talking hops with the exhibiting brewmasters. Inside -- chili and salsa tasting. It's a very good space for the purposes -- a circular room, lined with booths around the inside and outside, with lots of doors everywhere so you are never far from a breath of fresh air. If only ZAP could be held in a giant version of a space like this.
I am a long way from being qualified to be a professional chili judge. In fact, before I went to this event, I didn't know I had a personal philosophy about chili. It turns out that I do. There must be meat -- vegetaran chili is a contradiction in terms that I have no interest in. The spicing should be intense enough to dominate the meat, envelop it in flavor, without shutting out its native flavor. There should be a complex flavor profile, no one element dominating. Ideally, you should taste a melange whose components are hard to dissect. There should be a progression of flavors in the mouth, and a lingering finish with a burn to it. There should not be noticeable tanginess, neither from excessive vinegar-based hot sauce, or from tomatoes insufficiently simmered. Ground meat and chopped meat are both fine with me, as are beans, as long as the beans are occasional -- they have little flavor inside, so too many make for a bland result. Also, they're not as fun to chew on as meat. The dry spices should not be used to excess, which will produce a sort of dry, tannic feel.
I tasted 21 chilis. There were others I didn't taste, but they were vegetarian. I tasted one of those by accident. Also, there was a turkey chili, which I skipped, then went back and tried, but it was so far off the mark that I didn't write anything down about it.
Some were made by restaurants. Two were made by firehouses. Some were made by stores (Trader Joes). Some were made by teams of people who seemed to have gotten together for the purpose of making chili. One was made by a band; they also sold CDs at their booth.
Here's how I saw it.
Third Street Aleworks. Black beans, meat, topped with sour cream and finely chopped cilantro. A bit foo-foo and too sweet for my Atkins-sensitized palate, but well executed for the style. VERY GOOD MINUS
Fishman Supply. Serious "competition style" chili with heavy cumin, ground meat, no beans, no sweetness at all, and a well-managed profression of dried pepper and other dried spices in the mouth. This style of chili isn't my favorite, but this was very, very nicely done. VERY GOOD and my third-favorite.
Buckhorn. Quite sweet; either too many carrots, or the tomato was not cooked long enough, perhaps both. Decent burn, but didn't grab me. GOOD MINUS
Machismo. Chopped meat, no beans. Intriguing, complex flavor with just enough sweetness to encourage another bits, and a well-managed burn. In addition to the burn, there's also a Szechuan-pepper-like numbing quality. Perhaps this comes from coriander seed, or, more likely, from some interesting type of dried chili. Bravo. VERY GOOD PLUS and my second favorite.
Don's Garage Door. 2 kinds of beans in with the meat, but in small proportion. This one has a salad dressing-like herbal, tangy quality to it, which I dislike. FAIR
Trader Joe's. Soupy, not enough meat-to-liquid ratio to really count as chili. Lots of cumin, interesting pepperiness, but not up to the standards set by the competition. GOOD MINUS.
Whiskey Pie. Tangy and refreshing; too tangy for my taste. I'd probably relish sitting down to a bowl of this, but in a competition session, it seems unserious and undersimmered. GOOD PLUS
Benedetta "Fresh" Aromatheraputics
I don't know what's in this, but I don't think it's meat. Potatoes? It's not chili. Oh. It's vegetarian. The name should have tipped me off. NOT RATED
Brothers of Another Mothers. I like the name, and the guys behind the counter looked about right to produce great chili. Nice apparant combination of chopped and ground meat, but the flavors, dominated by carrot, reminded me too much of Campbell's Beef with Barley Soup. FAIR PLUS
Petaluma Firefighters. Cool booth, complete with siren. Chopped meat. Another chili I wouldn't mind sitting down to a full bowl of, but a touch too tangy. The spices are nicely balanced, but not sufficiently intense to properly envelop the meat flavors. GOOD PLUS
Carl's Chili. Spicing on this one was strange; a little sharp and shrill, and the onion flavor was excessive. FAIR PLUS
Lombardi's. Too many beans, not enough meat, too much...I think it's oregano. FAIR
Mad Pepper Farms. They sell pepper sauce, and overused it in the chili, which is dominated by an intense smoked-pepper taste. Not unpleasant, but too monolithic. FAIR PLUS
Oh So Smooth. A cumin-dominated monotone. FAIR PLUS
The Spicy Girls. Nice firmly chewy nubbles of meat; too monolithic, dominated by what is probably a habanero and vinegar hot pepper sauce. FAIR PLUS
P.U. Construction. Good concept booth with guys in hard hats and a "Caution! Men Cooking" sign. Nice nubbly bits of meat; very good balance of spices and burn, the cumin kept below the dominating threshhold. Very good, but lacks that bit of pizazz and elusive complexity that characterizes the best. VERY GOOD MINUS
Hayward Firefighters. Best booth, hands down. Titled "Lord of the Beans," this booth featured chili cooked in a big Mount Doom replica, supervised by a guy dressed like Frodo, served by a guy dressed like Aragorn, and with a roaming ambassador, in a Gollum mask, bones drawn in on his back, hunching his way around the room. The chili had too many beans, not enough meat, and too much smoke flavor. GOOD MINUS.
Cattlemens. Big chunks of meat. Taste was too dominated by a hot-sauce-like vinegar-pepper tang, plus an odd (cinnamon-chocolate?) note. Not bad, though. GOOD MINUS
Willowbrook Alehouse. Really beautiful. Ground meat, a few beans, occasional tiny dice of some nice texture veggie that reminded me of bamboo shoots. Great balance of hot influences, including what are probably roasted fresh chilis, hot sauce, and ground dried chilis. Complex. Lingering. Lively. EXCELLENT. My favorite.
This was fun. Think I'll do it again next year.