Thursday, February 21, 2013

Confessions of a Chili Judge

A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of being invited to judge a chili cook-off. Alert readers will not be surprised because in the past I have judged beer contests, owned a restaurant, plus I enjoy the Miss Universe pageant (and as the saying goes, how come the winner always resides on earth?). However, the judging requirements at this contest were a little less demanding.

On a cold, windy, rainy day, I happened to be wandering around the outside of a large sporting goods store waiting for my guns to be serviced (not the real reason I was there but I need to demonstrate some Texan bona fides). Someone grabbed me and asked if I liked chili. I said yes, and the next thing I knew, he was placing a “judge” lanyard over my neck and escorting me to a table. (I suspect if I had said, “no”, the next question would have been “Are you capable of swallowing food?” and my affirmative answer would have established my credentials as a chili judge.)

I sat down at a picnic table with five other very well qualified judges who could write numerals and remember not to double dip his/her spoon in the chili. An elderly woman (who I will now refer to as Mrs. Wolf) at the end of the table passed out scoring sheets and pencils. She noted that we all had bottled water at our places and that we were not to touch her beer that she had hidden in the box with the twelve bowls of chili.

We casually introduced ourselves, and I alertly noticed across the table the woman with the low cut top who put her best feet forward if you know what I mean. Anxious to start judging, I immediately penciled her in as an “8”.

Mrs. Wolf gave us instructions: we were to judge the chili on aroma, color, taste, consistency, and after-taste, and that we would assign a single number between 1 and 10 for each entry. We needed to keep our scores hidden from other judges, we were not allowed to talk about the chili, and most important of all, do not double dip your spoon! Always use a fresh spoon to taste! (At the time, I didn't think about it, but the thought of passing those bowls around on a cold, rainy day in the middle of flu season and relying on strangers to not double dip makes me question my sanity.)

Finally, Mrs. Wolf passed out the first set of bowls, and we got to work. I opened the lid on the first entry and inhaled a very nice fresh chili aroma. I studied the color then took a taste, allowing it to linger on the tongue, then chewed lightly to check the consistency. I dropped my spoon in the dump bucket to avoid the temptation to double dip before giving deep thought to the after-taste. With the exception of a little grease around the edge of the bowl, it was very good. But this was my first taste, and the only thing for me to compare it with was my own personal chili history. Not wanting to score it too high, I gave it a 6, closed the lid, and passed it on.

By now, three chili bowls had stacked up beside me. Apparently, I was judging much slower than the other judges, perhaps giving too much deep thought to each of the five criteria. I watched the Ms. 8 across from me as she judged. She opened the lid, took a quick taste, closed the lid and wrote a score down, all in about 4 seconds. I wondered if I should complain to Mrs. Wolf that perhaps other judges were not taking this as seriously as they should be. But the man next to me cleared his throat loudly to alert me to the four chili bowls piled up next to me. I demoted the non-judgmental Ms. 8 to Ms. 7 due to a lack of integrity and decided I needed to keep my eye on her.

The second bowl of chili didn't smell as good as the first, but other than that, it was about the same. I scored it a 7 and started thinking I had under-scored the first bowl. By the third bowl, I knew I had under-scored the first as the third tasted the same as the first two. Half-way through the samples, I had scored one “6” and six “7”s. I became despondent. If Mrs. Wolf studied my scores, she might kick me out as a failure of a judge.

I decided to be more open-minded. Unfortunately, this caused me to slow down. I avoided making eye contact with the other judges, but I felt their stares.

I ignored them. As I went along, I noticed that besides the first bowl, none of the others had any aroma at all, so I downgraded their scores as appropriate. Then I realized I had a runny nose from all the spiciness and really couldn't smell anything anymore. Just as I opened the lid of the next bowl, the man next to me reached across the bowl to grab a packet of crackers and nearly dipped his elbow in the bowl. I jerked the bowl away and gave him a sharp look.

“Sorry about that, hope I didn't get in your way,” he said.

“Well, I did almost have to note that this entry tasted like a dirty flannel shirt.”

“Don't talk about the chili!” Mrs. Wolf admonished us.

The next entry was a bit salty. But it was good and except for the extra salt it tasted just like the rest, so I gave it a 6. At this point, I felt like I needed to declare a winner. Even though we were only judging twelve out of the 130 entries, I felt like I needed to make the decision that one entry­--a single outstanding specimen of meat, tomato sauce, chili powder, and MSG--reigned supreme. So when I got the next bowl, I noticed it tasted just like the others, but I gave it an 8. The champion!

I still had two bowls left to judge when I noticed everyone staring at me. Again.

“No judge may leave the table until all judges have finished,” Mrs. Wolf said.

The woman formerly known as an 8 sighed loudly, leaned over the table and glared at me. “Some of us still need to get our ammo,” she said with a sneer as she jerked a thumb towards the mammoth front doors of Guns-N-Stuff-R-Us.

I grabbed my score sheet and marked her down to a 4. I finally finished and turned in my score sheet with two 6’s, nine 7’s and one 8. My only regret was not knocking the salty entry down to a 5 and not scoring the first entry as a 7.

So to all the chili contestants: I apologize for ruining your contest. You may as well have drawn the winner from a hat. But honestly, all the entries tasted nearly identical. So . . . you're all winners in my book!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

I Don't Dream of This Genie

If you watch television, you are probably familiar with the DirectTV genie commercial where a mysterious genie appears in front of a television screen like Vanna White, and I guess adjusts the volume or changes the channel for you. I have nothing against genies and was a big fan of “I Dream of Jeannie” with Barbara Eden, and I even enjoy the genie from Bugs Bunny cartoons.  But for some reason I find the Direct TV genie about as appealing as a week-old tumbler of bourbon and coke with cigarette butts soaking in it. She looks like an underage streetwalker after a really bad night.

So, although the genie is supposed to entice us into ordering Direct TV, I just get horrific images of her materializing out of nowhere:

. . . I came back from the kitchen with a bowl of popcorn in my hand when I noticed the genie draped across my television set. She smiled and waved at me, then fell to the floor with a shriek.

“What the--?”

“I'm good, I'm okay,” she said, struggling to her feet. “So, you want some Direct TV?”

“No thank you. I have cable.”

She pouted, crossed her arms, then dropped to the floor cross-legged.

“How'd you get in here?”

“I'm a genie. I snap my fingers, wiggle my nose. Or something. Actually, Direct TV pushes a button and sends me through the television.”

“That's impossible.”

“Says the guy that still has ancient cable.” She stood up and walked towards our bar. “You got any vodka?”

“No, just Scotch and tequila.”

“Cranberry or apple infused?”

“No, and I don’t think you should have--.”

She interrupted me by grabbing the tequila and heading back into the living room. She plopped down on the couch and took a swig from the bottle.

She swiped her mouth with the back of a hand then burped. “Anything good on?” she said, pointing at the television.

“I was just getting ready to watch a basketball game.”

“Pppffft. Bo-ring! You need Direct TV. Turn on Downton Abbey, and we'll do a shot every time someone says, 'my lord' or 'my lady.'”

“I don't want Direct TV, and I want to watch basketball. And you shouldn’t--”

“Whatever.” She pulled a cigarette from somewhere in her lacy outfit. “Mind if I smoke?”

“Yes. In fact, you should leave.”

She produced a lighter shaped like a grenade, lit up, and took a puff. A funny smell wafted my way.

“Is that--”

“Yeah,” she said with a smirk. “Should I have brought my bong?” She said this while holding her breath, holding the wet end towards me.

“No thanks. You need to go. And I don't think a 14-year-old should be drinking and smoking.”

“Fourteen? Ha! I'm legal.”

“Really? Old enough to drink?”

“Well, old enough for your dirty thoughts.” She winked. I shuddered.

“Get out of here!” I looked around as if an older, wiser genie was going to materialize and offer to take her off my hands.

She giggled. “Call some friends. Let's have a party.”

“You're the genie. Why don’t you call someone? Better yet, order us a dozen pizzas.” My freezer was empty at the moment.

“No wishes granted until you order Direct TV.” She stood up and walked to the kitchen. “Got any food?”

She came back into the living room munching from a bag of cheetos. She wiped her hand on her dress, ate another handful, then smeared the orange stuff across the back of the couch.

That was it. “Stop! Look, I'm not interested in Direct TV. You need to leave. Now.”

“Suit yourself.” She blinked, snapped her fingers, wiggled her nose, then crossed her arms and nodded. “Whoopsie! Still here! Looks like you’re stuck with me until you sign up.”

“Fine, sign me up,” I said, figuring I could cancel as soon as she left. I went to my office and grabbed an expired credit card, came back, and handed it to her.

“Great! I'll have to go swipe this and bring it right back to you.”

She started to snap her fingers then ran to the bar and grabbed a bottle of bourbon.

“A little something for the road,” she said.

This time she snapped her fingers and disappeared in a cloud of smoke through the television screen. I waited a minute then turned off the television. I haven't watched it since.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Don't Put a Cap On It

With Valentine's Day coming up, it's time for a public service announcement from this blog.

I've written about the problem of menunderdressing their women before and yet for some reason, my pleas have not changed the world. So let's start slow and small with something very specific: the baseball cap.

I've seen too many instances of women dressed nicely waiting for her date, only for the date to show up in some sort of ensemble of t-shirt, shorts or jeans and to top it all off, a baseball cap! And sometimes the baseball cap is on backwards.

Gentlemen, if you are preparing for a date, and you find yourself rummaging through your closet trying to find which baseball cap you think your date will find you more attractive in, please stop! Yes, it will make you look younger except that it will make you look younger than the age of consent. The baseball cap should be banished from your wardrobe when you have retired from little league or whenever it was that you last played organized baseball.

The baseball cap is not a fashion accessory. A good rule of thumb is when dressing for a night out, if you wish to put something on your head, if it cannot be considered a chapeau, you shouldn't wear it. A baseball cap is not a chapeau even if you call it Le baseball cap. And don’t be cute: a vintage Le Montreal Expos hat is no exception.

The only acceptable time to wear a baseball cap is if you have to go in public and haven't washed your hair (i.e. you are sporting a classic bedhead) or you are partaking in some strenuous outdoor physical activity and you need to protect your scalp from the sun. Wearing a baseball cap while golfing is acceptable, but once you reach the age of forty, you are culturally obliged to purchase one of those expansive Tom Kite or Greg Norman straw hats.

If you are over the age of 22, you shouldn't even wear a baseball cap while attending a professional baseball game. Grow up and get a derby, or a homburg, or a Panama, or even a fedora.

And God forbid, a baseball cap should never be worn backwards unless you are a professional baseball catcher or a successful rapper.

And if I can't get through to the gentlemen, I'm going to appeal directly to the women:

If your date shows up wearing a baseball cap, at the minimum swat it from his head. That's what the bill of the cap is for. If he manages to dodge that, say, “Oh, did you win your little league game? Shall we go get a sno-cone?”

Or, you can just flat out dump him. [To all you non-cap-wearing guys out there waiting to pounce on the fallout of this global “dumping”: You’re welcome.]

So Gentlemen, as you prepare for your big Valentine's date next week, remember that if you don a baseball cap for the Big Night Out, expect to have it knocked off. And not in a moment of passion.

[St. Pauli Girl interrupts this blog to ask how many baseball hats I have.]

Yes, okay, I have somewhere between ten and twenty, but I have never worn one on a date. And after I finish this blog post, I am trading them all in for a homburg, a bowler, and a giant Tom Kite hat. Except for my Augusta cap. I might need it in an emergency.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Devil's Got a Squeezebox

Awhile back, I heard the classic 70's song, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band on the radio. I listened closely to the devil's fiddle solo and realized it wasn't very good. This left me very perplexed about the song.

How did the devil lose, and why did he make the bet if he knew he wasn't very good?

To recap the song:

The devil is in Georgia trying to steal some souls when he comes across Johnny playing his fiddle. So the devil bets a fiddle of gold against Johnny's soul that the devil is a better fiddler. They both play some songs then the devil bows his head because he knows he's been beat, and he lays the fiddle of gold at Johnny's feet.

So where did the devil go wrong?

( you can listen to the whole song here or just the devil's solo at about the 1:25 mark)

The devil's solo is introduced with “and it sounded something like this” and we immediately hear a guitar and/or funky piano. Apparently, the devil brought a backing band. Is that allowed? Okay, he's the devil so we should expect a little gamesmanship at best. A few seconds later, we can hear the fiddle coming in with a slight smoldering touch, but the fiddle never really takes over the song. I'm willing to bet the devil had never even played the fiddle before.

Simon Cowell probably would have said, “Satan, that was not your best effort. You needed an inferno and you brought a bic lighter. I mean, you're playing for someone's soul! You just let the background music take over and stood there like a demonic Stu Sutcliffe bringing nothing to the stage. I really doubt you'll be back next week.”

Was he forced to play the gold fiddle? I would think that would be pretty heavy and would throw anyone off his game. Plus I imagine it would sound metallic at best.

The devil had the upper hand too. He had already heard Johnny playing before he made the bet. He had to know he didn't have the chops to take Johnny down. He should have insisted on having judges for the contest:

“To be fair,” the devil could have said, “we'll need an impartial group of judges. Luckily these fine gentlemen followed me here: Hitler, Stalin and William Tecumseh Sherman.”

There's no way Sherman lets someone from Georgia win.

He could have at least demanded two out of three.

But the whole reason I got to thinking about the song again was because I recently listened to the version by Those Darn Accordions from my massive music library.

Their version has the same basic plot except the fiddle is an accordion and Johnny is a girl named Big Lou. (Granted they should have changed the setting to Milwaukee or Waukesha but that's beside the point.) Most importantly, in this version, the devil pulls out his accordion and puts down the squeeze. You can hear the fire coming from the bellows. Big Lou still wins but at least the devil puts up a fight.

So I believe the accordion version is far superior to the Charlie Daniels version because in that version the devil brings a backing band to a fiddle fight while in the accordion version it's a fiery, one man accordion solo.

But most of all, we can all be happy that Steve Miller didn't write it as it would have gone something like this:

“Devil went down to oooh, old El Paso

Bet a gold fiddle against Johnny's soul

Father Mahoney ain't gonna let Satan escape justice

Headed down south and Johnny's still fiddlin' today”

(And they would probably do a drum solo for the devil's fiddle part)

Notes: There's actually a youtube clip of Those Darn Accordions playing the song live. Surprisingly, it defeats my argument as it sticks closely to the Charlie Daniels version. However, if you look up the studio version on itunes, you can actually sample the pertinent parts of the song I'm talking about. And if you do check out the youtube clip and you're a fan of The Who, you owe it yourself to check out “Baba O'Riley”.