Sales of specialty foods have lately soared to new heights, with U.S. shoppers in 2012 snapping up $86 billion worth of high-quality meats, cheeses, pickles and jams, but the crusty hash slingers who've distinguished themselves on the region's competitive chili circuit aren't much interested in artisanal.
At last Saturday's Kla Ha Ya Days Chili Cookoff in Snohomish, the first contest of the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI)-Puget Pod's official stewing season, entrants filled their pots with store-brand chicken broth, cut-rate red wine and McCormick spices. The unspoken consensus was that ingredient provenance didn't matter.
That doesn't mean competitors don't think about ingredients. According to cookoff organizer Ken Peach, there's bedlam in the chili community when a world championship recipe features an ingredient that's not found in the standard chili pantry kit.
“Someone wins with white pepper” and suddenly everyone swears by it, Peach says. “But you can win with anything,” he confides.
“I like to mess with people's minds,” says Peach, who's amassed an impressive trophy collection during his decades of chili-making. He recently started displaying coconut milk on his table, leading fellow competitors to believe he'd found the sport's holy grail in the Asian foods aisle. “But I wouldn't do y'all that way.”
My husband and I had entered the Snohomish competition, having gotten interested in competitive chili after judging last year's Canadian championships in Whistler. Our unbeatable strategy involved using top-shelf ingredients, including beef from Rain Shadow Meats, a dozen different spices from World Spice Merchants and Crazy Water No. 3 from Mineral Wells, Tex., a town which started hawking its quality water back when folks cared more about artesian than artisan.
The resulting chili was terrific – and it finished dead last.
Our chili was especially unpopular with Peach, who also competed and served as head judge. “Did you taste that?,” he barked when we asked him to try our pricy take on the dish. But the other competitors were so pleased with our Texas-style chili (CASI rules prohibit entries with anything other than meat and sauce; A stray garlic clove or serrano pepper seed is grounds for disqualification) that we were inspired to doctor it for the homestyle contest. Homestyle is the “anything goes” division, but anything nearly always includes beans.
“You don't listen very good, do you?,” Peach said when we told him we off to fetch a can of beans. “I told you, anything you need, you ask me.”
Peach produced a can of Bush's reduced-sodium beans and a tied-up bag of Splenda. We dutifully added the beans, but I couldn't bring myself to desecrate our chili with Splenda. I asked the barista at a nearby coffeeshop for brown sugar.
We didn't taste the homestyle chili, but the judges who did apparently liked the canned beans and sweetener. Our entry placed fifth, which was good enough for a cash prize. Now that we know the road to Terlingua leads through Costco, we may get there yet.