Reporter's Notebook: In chili contest, some are hot and some not

Looking at my waistline, it's evident that I love food and eat lots of it.

If there's a new crazy food trend or a night market within driving distance of where I live, I'll be there. Therefore, when Susan Welfringer, the manager of the Huntington Beach Business Improvement District, invited me to be one of the judges for the seventh annual Chili at the Beach event, I was more than happy to accept.

We met at Coach's Mediterranean Grill off Main Street, which was cleared out for the tasting that Saturday morning.

There would be five of us judging 24 chili entries and 14 salsas made by various restaurants, organizations or anyone who wanted to try his or her hand at making a winning dish.

I saw a few familiar faces on the panel, including Matt Liffreing, the man behind every video montage of seemingly every event in the city. Mr. Huntington Beach and Beef Palace Butcher Shop owner Calvin Free was participating as well.

One of my newest acquaintances was Carol Pellet, a teacher from Sowers Middle School. She told me that she teaches a cooking class and has had plenty of experience with good and bad creations.

The other judge was Amy Volk, a teacher from Hawes Elementary, who had never critiqued food before.

I am by no means a chili expert, but I eat my fair share of the hearty, gas-inducing stew monthly.

Before we started shoveling in the chili, Pellet suggested it would be wise to taste as little of one entry as possible to avoid our stomachs from being overwhelmed by all the spices.

After a quick briefing on the do's and don'ts, volunteers started handing each of us small polystyrene cups of chili identified only by a letter.

We looked at one another with excitement, removed the plastic lids and dipped our tiny plastic spoons into the first entry.

We were to judge each entry in five catagories: aroma, color, consistency, taste and aftertaste.

The first cup seemed like an average chili and so did the next several entries. I took time to really savor the aroma, swishing the stew in my mouth to see if I could identify spices, meats and vegetables. I even moved the cup around to find the right lighting and examine the color.

But before we knew it, the volunteers began to dump more and more entries in front of us and stacks of cups began to pile up.

We soon learned to identify which chili deserved more attention than another, and we began to speed through each cup.

I couldn't believe the wide variety of chili that day. Some cooks had used chunks of beef while others opted for ground meat. Some varieties were thick and heavy and others thin and soupy.

The flavors varied so much that I found myself drinking water in an attempt to cleanse my palate.

A few chili entries really stood out for me and prompted me to finish the cup. I gave kudos to those that used beef chunks and had the right ratio of meat to beans. The one that really impressed me had complex smoky flavors and offered the right amount of spiciness.

And then it appeared in front of us, the cup of chili none of us could wrap our heads around.

It's appearance was questionable, with a layer of foam covering the top. It looked more like a soup than a chili, with a watery consistency, huge chunks of carrots and oddly shaped pieces of what I hoped was meat.

It didn't smell foul but it tasted bad. Awful. Revolting.

Volunteers kept handing us more entries to judge, but my colleagues and I were were hard-pressed to move beyond the travesty we had just experienced.

I was handed a cup with the letter Y on it and remarked, "Y does that last cup of chili even exist?"

After we finished judging the chili and salsas, I asked one of the organizers if she could tell me who made the one we were so offended by.

She told me who it was, and when I checked the results on the Business Improvement District's website Monday, I saw that it had not won any awards.

All was right with the world.

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