Judging chili

So many of the more famous blogs I read talk about all the fabulous things that they get for being famous food bloggers - signed copies of the latest cookbooks, invitations to new restaurant openings, etc. My first non-foodie recognition came in the form of an invitation to serve as a judge in the annual Jefferson Lab Facilities' Management Chili Cook-off! This a morale-building event where employees enter and bring their chili and then it is blind tasted and a winner is selected by acclamation of three judges.
At the appointed time yesterday, in the midst of preparations for our yearly budget presentation, I walked over to the VARC building with one of my co-judges, JT. That was trouble already. JT is a crazy man and he gave me advance warning that anything hot was going to make him break out in a sweat. We were also a little concerned because over the next few (if you think of 9 as a few!) we were going to be in a small meeting room working on a presentation- not the best place to be after tasting seven different chilis! When we got to the VARC, we followed the smell to the appointed room, and there were more crockpots than I have seen anywhere (except maybe Bed, Bath and Beyond). Tables were full of chili and chili fixin's like sour cream and cheese, and rolls, biscuits and cornbread, and desserts. It was a feast! We were greeted by our other co-judge, Rick, and scads of the Facilities' Management staff. These people handle functions from security to architecture to engineering to maintenance (the pictures above are from their website!) Let me tell you that this is a diverse group of people- there are all types of people from Hispanics, African-Americans, to Southern good ole' boys, but from the smells I could tell that we were in for a treat (and a tough decision!) The only moment of hesitation I had was when I saw a bottle of Tums near the end of the food line!

It was interesting to me as a lover of food to see how different a spin each person could put on a classic like chili. All included meat and beans, but one smelled of cinnamon, one was spiced with cumin (When I mentioned this during the tasting, JT thought I said it had "human" in it!), one had a slightly sweet taste, some were thick, and others were thinner, one had lots of sweet peppers and onions. Each of them was different and reflected the person who made it, and their preferences, their history and heritage. Just as predicted, JT started to mop his face like Louis Armstrong as we made our way through the different entries, but we finally agreed on one entry that stood out - Number 6 made by Carroll. We all laughed (and the other contestants groaned) when Carroll confessed that this was his first time making chili and that with his wife gone, he relied on a packet of McCormick's chili mix for his spices!!

While we weren't told ahead of time who the chefs were, I think I could have told by the slightly nervous but proud looks that were on their faces. And I really don't think they cared so much that they were being judged by three rank amateurs in the food business, it was that they made something and were sharing it with their co-workers. Food can really bring people together and that is especially true at work. Besides necessary nourishment, you learn something about the people you are with 8 or more hours a day, you see them in a different light... and you can have a darned good time (not to mention putting on a few pounds).

When the judging was done it was all over but the eating, and there was plenty of that... and laughing and joking about who spent the most time on their chili, where the organic chocolate pie came from and whose rolls were the best. And there was already trash talking about next year's contest and who would be kickin' whose butt next year...

Thanks Rusty for inviting me and all the chefs who did an incredible job, and the Facilities' Management staff who made me part of their really special event.


Sorcha said…
Sounds like fun! Yummy, too.

Just as an aside, have you ever eaten at Pop's out in Grafton? It's where Denbigh Blvd. meets Rt. 17, and I miss it like I miss my family, man.
Deborah Dowd said…
Are you kidding? Pops is a barbecue monument! It is one of my favorite mom and pop places. I will be posting soon about an up and coming place just down the road that is giving them a run for their money!
Jessica Fowler said…
Looking forward to a lab-wide cookoff! ;)
Deborah Dowd said…
Jessica- Me too! (any excuse to eat good food!)