A couple of weeks ago I attended a Chili cookoff at a nearby town. For the uninformed, a "cookoff" is a cooking competition that concentrates on a particular dish, in this case, chili or "chili con carne" to be more precise, a spicy meat stew which is particularly popular in the South. There were a few dozen vendors in attendance and I took my time to sample all of them. I've tasted a lot of different interpretations of chili over the years, e.g., shredded beef versus ground beef, various types of chili peppers, textures, not to mention how served, such as on a bed of rice, on spaghetti, with corn bread, etc. Because of these many variations, I like to believe I have a pretty open mind when it comes to chili.
The competitors in the chili cookoff came from different backgrounds; everything from restaurants to mom and pop operations, to individuals who relished participating in such events. Usually when you go to a cookoff like this, you are likely to run across some commonality between entries. Interestingly, I didn't find anything remotely similar between the various competitors. Although I thought when it came to chili I had seen everything, I of course didn't as everyone seemed to have their own unique interpretation. Most had little or no spice whatsoever in it, which baffled me. Some were runny or soupy and others had more kidney beans than meat. I even found one with shrimp that could have easily passed for gumbo as opposed to chili (I think the guy was lost). There was also a vegetarian chili which I personally consider blasphemous. Regardless, each and every competitor was genuinely proud of their entry and boasted it was the best in the competition. Frankly, most of the entries could have been better used as fishing chum in the Gulf. I may not be a chili connoisseur, but this was bad and I think it would have offended everyone in the great state of Texas where chili is the official dish.
Regardless of the outcome, I discovered chili is a very personal dish and there are probably no two people who prepare it exactly the same. Even if people use prepackaged ingredients, I have found they like to add their own unique nuance to the recipe. When you ask someone to describe their version you usually get a contrived answer like, "It's Spanish style," or Cuban, Greek, Filipino or Ethiopian (huh?), not to mention Cincinnati-style with its "5 ways" of combining ingredients.
I have also found chili recipes are usually jealously guarded family secrets (sometimes even between family members). As to the cookoff competitors I experienced, I don't think they have to worry about the misappropriation of any trade secret. They could paste their recipes on every telephone poll from Tampa to Fairbanks and I think it is safe to say their secrets will remain proprietary.
I guess I don't see chili as a complicated dish. There is meat and there are spices. To me, it's the spices that distinguishes the dish. When you are in the southwest, it's usually a matter of red chilies versus green chilies, both have different tastes and degrees of heat. We could easily stop there but inevitably we do not as evidenced by the many different interpretations I experienced at the cookoff. But shrimp chili? Vegetarian chili? Turkey chili? Ethiopian chili? No, no, no, and Hell no. Just give me the beef and an interesting spice, two things I didn't find at this year's "chili cookoff."
Keep the Faith!
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Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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