Ai, Ai, Ai, Caliente Y Picante

With its first annual CASI-sanctioned Chisholm Chili Cookoff, Meridian Parks and Recreation hosts new marquee event with fun for everyone of all ages June 25-26

MERIDIAN – Even the popular TV comedy show Big Bang Theory spent an episode discussing it. Texas native Sheldon Cooper insisted that what he was being served was good, but it wasn’t chili as the chef referred to it. So, what makes a good Texas chili?

For one, no beans – at all. There is a reason why it is called Chili con Carne and not Chili con Carne con Frigoles. Two, it’s the perfect blend of flavor and heat – where hot chili designates the spiciness, not the temperature of the dish. Some like it to be a mouth-roof blistering blend. But not everyone can handle the heat. So if you can’t stand the heat, lay off the chili. Thick or thin is another discussion entirely – it is not a soup! And vegetarian is definitely out.

Back in 1977, the Texas Legislature proclaimed chili the state dish in recognition of the fact that the only real bowl of red is that prepared by Texans. “One cannot be a true son or daughter of this state without having his taste buds tingle at the thought of the treat that is real, honest-to-goodness, unadulterated Texas chili,” the legislature stated.

And what better way to celebrate Texas’ state dish than having a Chili Cook-off? Which is why the Meridian Parks and Recreation Committee decided to initiate a new marquee Meridian event – the first annual Chisholm Chili Cook off. The inaugural event was initially planned for 2020, but COVID-19 restrictions caused the event to be delayed a year.

The Chisholm Chili Cook-off on June 25-26 is an event sanctioned by Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI), allowing cookers to amass points towards season’s finals. And at a CASI-sanctioned cook-off, all chili recipes – family or otherwise – are fine as long as you don’t add corn or other veggies. It’s might be good, but it isn’t competition chili – it’s then called home-style chili.

Surrounding the community event are additional contests like a beans cook-off, Margarita and Bloody Mary contests as well as a slew of fun, family attractions for visitors on both days. The activities are spread out between the Bosque Bottoms, the Meridian Civic Center, the Meridian and Lion’s Parks and the John A. Lomax Amphitheater.

Chili cookers are notorious for their hospitality and love to chat with visitors. It’s fun to go around their cook sites, hear the tall stories of the “I almost won” or the horrors of the burned pot or the crazy showmanship winners, chat with the Best of the Best cooks that have won the CASI Terlingua award, and to admire the many decorated Coleman two-burner stoves with Wendell Rankin scenes.

The small, iconic stoves feature landscapes, pin ups, jackasses, are often commemorative, and even honor deceased pets, Making the stoves even more fun, are the imaginative Chili pod or Cook Team names like “Some like it hot,” with Marilyn Monroe lips; “WTF chili,” “Cadillac Cowgirl Chili,” “Hot to Trot chili,” “Wild Woman Chili,” “Nifty Fifty,” “Fire Ant Chili,” and “Cow Chip Chili” – alluding to the time when the cookies on the Chisholm Trail used dried cow dung as cooking fuel.

In his career, Rankin has painted cars, trucks, rocks, hats, and water towers. Oh yes, and he painted the “TCB” logo Taking Care of Business on Elvis Presley’s plane.  And there have been billboards, signs and scoreboards.

“But, I guess the single most object I have painted on is the Coleman cook stove,” Rankin said. “The kind that competition chili cooks use for chili cook-offs.”

So back to the chili, the star of the show.

Kent Finlay, the late singer, songwriter, and owner of Cheatham Street Warehouse, a Texas historical music hall in San Marcos, sums up the history of Texas chili in his song, “If you know Beans about Chili…. you know Chili has no Beans” with the iconic lyrics:

“If you know beans about chili, you know it didn’t come from Mexico. Chili was God’s gift to Texas or maybe it came from down below,” referencing the heat and the heartburn, the sweats and blistered lips of a chili. “And chili doesn’t go with macaroni and dammed Yankee’s don’t go with chili queens; so if you know beans about chili, you know that chili has no beans.”

The lyrics can be found in the “Unofficial history of Texas Chili” by Richard Knight, lifetime member, Chili Appreciation Society International.

According to Knight’s article, there are as many theories of how and where chili originated as there are unique family chili recipes. But, it seems understandable that the original chili recipes would be devised where there was a plentiful supply of chili’s key components, red meat and chile peppers. The meat – venison, bison and beef – was available on the plains of Texas. So were the wild chili peppers.

Texans claim that chili originated in their state, which is hotly contested by New Mexicans. Other rivalries between states involve not only recipes, but even semantics. New Mexicans use the word "chili" to describe the plant, the pod and various dishes made with chili peppers; while to Texans, the word "chili" is a very specific culinary dish.

“Several legit histories of Texas Chili are available. The primary one arose from the “Chili Queens” on Military Plaza in San Antonio, from the mid-19th Century through the early 20th Century," Knight wrote. "These business ladies sold a meat dish called “Chili Con Carne”, referring to the chili pepper and beef combination. And of course, frijoles (beans) were available (as should be) as a side dish.

“The spread of chili throughout Texas and the nation began with the cattle drives of the mid-late 19th century. Every cattle drive had chili as a chuck wagon staple, since the native peppers and onions were abundant along the trails.

"But stories are spread that the beef was too valuable and was limited to be used as food on the cattle drive, so extra protein came from a pot of beans alongside the chili pot. The cowboys then mixed the chili and beans together in a tin plate. It is said that some trail cooks planted pepper seeds, oregano, and onions in mesquite patches – to protect them from foraging cattle – to use on future trail drives.

"By the 1920s, chili joints were common all over the West, and by the depression years, there was hardly a town that didn’t have a chili parlor. The chili joints were usually no more than a shed or a room with a counter and some stools.  Usually a blanket was hung up to separate the kitchen. By the depression years, the chili joints meant the difference between starvation and staying alive. Chili was cheap, and crackers were free.”

“As the depression weakened and the economy grew, chili lost some of its magic,” Knight recounts. “There were, however, true believers who raised the lowly bowl of red to cult status. Most notable was CAS (Chili Appreciation Society), that started up around Dallas in the early 1940's.

"Once a month or so, a group of these Chiliheads (mostly the Dallas Press Club) would gather to consume and tout the virtues of chili. They were serious in a humorous way. They wrote songs and poems about chili. They came up with rituals like The Crumbling of the Crackers to make their meetings entertaining. They distributed recipes to every part of the known world to spread appreciation of their favorite food."

According to Knight, the first recorded chili contest was conducted October 4, 1952 at the State Fair of Texas.

 “In the early 1960s, chili was a hot subject. Vice President and later President Lyndon Baines Johnson shared his appreciation for chili with the world by publicizing his personal recipe, Pedernales Chili.” Johnson is said to have commented that “chili concocted outside of Texas is a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing,” and Will Rogers described Texas chili as “the bowl of blessedness.”

As simple as the competitive chili ingredients and get-up might be, the end result of the pot depends on many subtleties. One family of competitive chili cooks decided to do a test. Eight cooks got exactly the same ingredients to cook a chili. When the cooking was done, not one chili tasted the same as the other. The success is in the details. And who wins the cook off depends on the cook and the judges preferences.

Other than competitions in “the other” Texas state dish – brisket – chili only takes about three hours to cook, two hours of low simmer and one hour to “sit.” This relatively short cook time might explain the popularity of chili cook-offs. It is a great time to spend with friends and family.

If you check out the CASI website, there are several recipes to draw from. It all starts with two pounds of 80/20 beef chuck. Different peppers are added to the sauce for flavor, like Serrano and Pomplano – but they are removed before judging. Other ingredients include brown sugar, cumin, Louisiana hot sauce, onion and garlic granules – not the fresh stuff – red tomato sauce and a complicated “secret” blends of a lot of brand chili powder mixes like Pendery’s, Cowtown, Mexene, and Lone Star. Even Monosodiumglutamate, disguised as Sazon Goya makes its way into chili.

The primary categories evaluated during a cookoff are aroma, color, consistency, taste, and aftertaste. Each category has a level of 1-10 with a total of 50 possible points being considered the best.

Oddly enough, there is no “heat” category, as in Scoville heat index, indicating the spiciness of the dish. Because hard-core chili heads just love the capsaicin-induced burning mouth, scorched lips, the runny nose, the sweat beads on the forehead and the morning-after effects – we’ll refrain from the details there. Spiciness isn’t a flavor, not like sweet or sour – it’s just the result of the activation of pain receptors in the body.

Spicy hot foods can be pretty addictive, as Capsaicin also releases endorphins – chemicals produced by the body to relieve stress and pain – working as euphoriant. Capsaicin also has anti-microbial properties that inhibit as much as 75 percent of bacteria growth. Historically, salty and spicy additions to food helped prevent spoilage in warm climates before the invention of refrigeration.

The strange thing is that spicy foods can heat up your body when it’s cold or cool off your body when it’s hot. How? Eating spicy food makes you sweat and sweating helps your body temperature regulate itself.

Both the preservative properties and the temperature regulation would explain why spicy foods are popular with the people in warmer climates like Indonesia, Indian, Middle East, Sichuan province in China, Equatorial Africa, Mexico, and of course Texas and Louisiana.

So what types of peppers are there to enhance these pots of competition chili with few ingredients? And which peppers are hot and which are not?

The capsaicin content in peppers is measured in Scoville Heat Units, or SHU, on the Scoville scale. This SHU scale from the thousands for milder peppers like the bell pepper and pimentos all the way up to the hundreds of thousands and even millions for the spiciest varieties like the Carolina Reaper – the name alone should scare you, and it is too hot for human consumption. In 2013, the Carolina Reaper was named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's hottest pepper, and peaks at 2,200,000 SHU.

As a judge for a Chili Cookoff, you might encounter chili’s on both ends of the scale – the milder, more aromatic chili that tantalizes the taste buds chili or the bowl that brings on the heat, scorching your lips and taste buds. There is always that element of surprise!

Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS

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