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!

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