Once upon a time, I entered a couple of small-time chili contests. Then, because I am a good-natured patsy, I agreed to judge a couple of contests.
I learned to regret this. Take it from me, the heartbreak of losing a chili contest is nothing compared with the heartburn of being a chili judge. (Well, not literal heartburn, though there’s enough of that.) Chili cooks have strong opinions, and the losers tend to seek you out in the parking lot to let you know, at oppressive length, what an idiot and moral leper you are for not giving them the big prize.
Oddly, the strength of their feelings has nothing to do with the strength of their chilis. I got as much grief from people whose idea of chili was some kind of soup of hamburger meat and canned tomatoes as from the sadists who liked to depth-charge mild-looking chicken stews with habaneros.
You can’t win. Being a chili judge is like asking people to show you photos of their children just so you can tell most of them that their kids aren’t cute enough.
At least it was what we call a learning experience, because I discovered something about my fellow citizens. It seems that many chili contest people believe firmly in secret ingredients, and the ingredient should apparently be something scary -- cactus or some repellent creature, such as armadillo, rattlesnake, alligator or (best of all) the worm from a bottle of mescal.
Now, in the few little contests I’d won, I actually had used a secret ingredient that might well scare some people. I kept it a big secret, of course -- I brought it in an opaque container and made sure, as far as possible, that nobody was watching when I added it.
What was my secret ingredient? Butter. You heard me, butter.
Hey, chili is all about being opinionated, and here’s my opinionated, non-negotiable philosophy of chili. You have to make it by stewing beef in a sauce loaded with ground red chiles, so that it is rich with their earthy aroma and subtle dried-fruit sweetness, which is rather like the sweetness of dried tomatoes.
There has to be a respectable degree of heat, of course, and cumin too -- in my book, chili without cumin is just some weird kind of goulash. But the essential thing is lots and lots of ground chile peppers, enough granulated matter that you can stand a spoon up in the result.
So I devised a cocktail of Mexican peppers, with a mild chile such as ancho or chile California as the base and a couple of hotter chiles for burn and bouquet. I fried them with pureed onion before adding them to the stew, as is regularly done in Mexican moles. And to give the sauce a little more flavor, I stewed the meat in a mixture of water and tomato sauce.
This gave the taste I wanted. But the problem with using enough ground chiles to make a thick, flavorful sauce is that they also make it bitter. How to deal with that? Rattlesnake meat doesn’t do any good (and I don’t even believe its heart is in the right place).
The answer is simple. Add things to make people’s mouths so happy that they don’t notice the bitterness. Butter smooths out the bitterness and adds its unique richness, making you take another bite without quite knowing why. A dash of sugar and vinegar gives a sweet-sour flavor that also makes the sauce rounder and more satisfying.
There. My prize-winning secret is out. Now just stay away from me in the parking lot.