Five years ago, aspiring Pacific Northwest pit bosses keen to smoke a whole brisket typically had to request the cut from their befuddled butchers. But the recent rage for Southern-style barbecue has helped make briskets a grocery staple, a trajectory that competitive chili maker Steve Burnfield hopes the ingredients for his specialty will soon follow.
"I bring my chili powder up from Texas," Burnfield says. "I'll bring in some stuff and it's almost like a drug dealer showing up. Guys are like, 'hey, man you got the powder?'"
Using the right chili powder is critical because the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI), which hosts the world's annual chili championship in Terlingua, Tex., defines chili as meat and sauce, in accordance with Texan traditions. (In another nod to the dish's Lone Star roots, the official rule book states, "contestants discharging firearms will be disqualified.") Burnfield says the classification of vegetables as foreign matter mystifies Northerners raised on bowls of beef and beans.
"Nobody even knows about Texas-style chili," says Burnfield, who heads CASI's British Columbia chapter, the Pacific Pod. "Everybody around here was brought up on home-style. I've found in Canada they don't even know about chili ground beef. It's not common around here."
Yet Burnfield thinks true chili could make inroads with cooks burned out on the cost and challenge of barbecue - and eaters perennially disappointed by their lackluster smoked meat experiments.
"It's just as much fun, and you get to go to bed at night," he says.
At last weekend's Canadian National Barbecue Championships in Whistler, two-thirds of the 29 contestants in the concurrent Terlingua qualifier were barbecue contestants biding time before firing up their cookers for ribs, chicken and pork butt.
"They're here anyhow, so they might as well cook chili," Burnfield says. "It's 25 bucks to enter, so it's not an expensive deal. By the time you buy meat, ice and beverages, it's a $100 deal."
CASI awards ribbons and glass trophies instead of cash prizes - "it's all about the glory," Burnfield says - which helps keep entry fees low. The money raised by CASI events, including last weekend's Canadian Championships and this weekend's Washington State Championship in Olympia, supports a college scholarship program. The Canadian Championships last year generated $4000 for the cause.
Dallas Morning News writer Frank X. Tolbert, author of A Bowl of Red, in 1967 hosted the first Terlingua cook-off after a New York humorist challenged him to a chili duel. Tolbert recruited colleague Wick Fowler, producer of Wick Fowler's Two-Alarm Chili, to represent Texas: He showed up in a sombrero, carrying his chili secrets in a brown paper bag. Judges declared a tie, making the contest one of only two in the event's history to end with a Northerner finishing first.
"It's an education up here," Burnfield says.