A Chili Cook-off in the New Normal

I don’t know about you, but not eating with groups of people is finally starting to wear on me. And when I say “finally” please understand that I operate as a solo act and am used to spending a lot of time alone. Enjoying solitude is not something all people understand, but by July of this year, the pandemic (and other life circumstances) had chipped away at my love of creative isolation.

This truth applies to my pre-pandemic dining behavior as well. Not to say that I would always turn down an invitation to a meal or never extend one, but when options are removed, one might want to reflect on what matters. And my reflections have led me, and some that I know, into a virtual dining experience that may help to shape socializing as we know it.

Distantly Social Chili

Back in November, I asked a circle of friends if they would participate in a virtual chili cook-off. Most of them said yes immediately and then asked what they had signed up for. I think any group activity that involves friendship and sharing food—safely—is welcome. Say yes first. Ask questions later.

Here is the rundown:

Multiple households in the same city, but within a manageable distance from one another, each make a batch of chili. That chili is then portioned out into separate containers for sampling and is picked up and delivered to the homes of the other participants, and taken to those who have been designated to judge the chili.

Sara was a chili shuttling champ. If you ask her what it’s like to drive chili around Fort Collins, she might answer, “Aromatic.” She reported back that her favorite thing was seeing everyone’s faces and how excited they were to throw their chili into the ring.

You have to develop a judging criterion. And you need to have a shit ton of sample cups with lids. Sara ordered ours from Jeff Bezos (I’m not certain if Mr. Bezos endorses the cups we chose, but they have lids and are microwave safe–just what we were after).

You have to make sure that the pick-up/delivery logistics are manageable so that the tasting can get underway within a reasonable amount of time.

You have to predetermine the ceiling of spice by asking the judges what their threshold of “unpalatable” means.

There’s more to this, and I might just create a PDF file for download on the strategy. I mean, after the chili coma symptoms abate. That should take about a week.

There’s a lot to coordinate. A plan must be in place. But once it has all been established, and the expectations are clear, success is certain. I want to say here that it doesn’t matter who wins, because this full effort is the actual win.

Please note that I did not win this time around, and as it follows, I must insist that I was robbed. You can watch a brief vid of me concocting my losing batch on IGTV. The artfully inspired name I chose for my chili, The Slow Burn, was somewhat accurate. But if I were to hold true to the tale, my chili really should be called, Who Doesn’t Love a Bowl of Meat?

A Winning Formula

During the Zoom call that featured faces I hadn’t seen in months, it was amazing to me the breadth and depth of chili knowledge that came to the virtual table. Having a predilection to the scientific side of chili, my friend Laura posed chili cook-off questions surrounding the Scoville scale. I was so grateful for her input and also delighted to find that her husband Neil has very strong opinions about the difference between Texas and New Mexico green chili. He sought to educate us during the call.  Their chili was the designated runner-up.

We had a former chili champ in our midst in Sarah, who made a chicken chili that knocked it out of the park. I think chicken chili is hard to nail and we had two very well executed batches. Lauren’s included a sack of chili accoutrements decorated in keeping with the name of her chili, “Chili Vanilli.” Her explanation? “Well, it’s chicken chili, so is it real? Kind of fake, right?.”

It was hard to focus on the entry posed by RJ and Austin. Their chili was tasty (it may have been my favorite due to the citrus zing) but it was their Zoom presence that had us fully engaged. They sat before their fireplace, flames a’ blazin’, with Santa hats on, a sparkly lit Christmas tree clearly visible. I almost took a picture of them for my own holiday card.

In the end, it was Steve who took home the honor of chili champ. I’m not sure what was going down in that bowl, but it was a whole lot of awesome. Not to mention the name, 5 Bean Food Baby, which also is another way to show off one’s creativity. As a matter of fact, the judges had to use the chili names as a tie breaker for the runner-up (Sarah, you were so close).

It bears mentioning that the chosen runner-up chili was named after the circumstances surrounding an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer attends a chili cook-off. Despite his best attempts to stay sober and well behaved, he samples a Guatemalan insanity pepper, proceeds to trip balls, and finds a coyote to hang out with who has the voice of Johnny Cash.

The name of the runner-up chili was “Space Coyote Chili made with Guatemalan Insanity Peppers.” During the Zoom call, it was Hannah who got the pop culture reference first, and of course all of us are now beholden to watching this melee unfold.

Chili Pairings and Other Concerns

This effort bore an extra spin based on my recent research surrounding the pairing of chili with a cinnamon roll. Which I must reiterate, sounds disgusting. By the time this cook-off commenced, Kay’s kitchen had seen several batches of sugar-enhanced dough hit the oven.

She meant to make cinnamon rolls, but she kept getting praise from her family (and me) about a certain pecan roll that she tested early on in the process. She never departed, and on the day of the cook-off, the samples were delivered with homemade pecan rolls. In the name of culinary exploration, I did dip the pecan roll in the chili. I would do it again, if the roll in question is pecan and is Kay’s.

Sarah mentions at the top of this clip that she approves of a sweet roll in chili. Who knew? Yes, her hat pretty much stole the show.

What else can we try? We are considering gumbo or soup. During our after-game, Steve suggested, “What if it we did a cheese pizza? Then it would just be about the sauce, the cheese, and the crust.” I say yes to that, Steve, but can we do Margherita pizza, just for a little more depth? Let’s huddle on that later.

And what would you do? Lasagna? Virtual spaghetti feed? Pie? Dudes, that’s a ton of leftovers. Think of it. You’re sharing food with your friends, encouraging creative culinary competition, and basically interfacing on a call over a meal. This is using what is available to our best advantage and fostering a healthy sense of community while we are at it.

Chili samples landing at the doorstep of a participant.

I made a suggestion to one of our chili judges, a neurophysiologist, that adaptability is the key to survival. This is clearly demonstrated in the animal kingdom and with Darwin’s theory of evolution. He is in agreement but points out that adaptability in humans is muddled due to a level of intelligence that serves to question the merits of what we must adapt to. Our ability to question sometimes gets in the way of our own survival.

For me, the question has to be how we become creative with what we have. We must do so in a changed world with unexpected restrictions. Maintaining connections with those who we love is the foundation on which survival can be built. Along the way, I believe it is still possible—and necessary—to share a table.

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