I KNEW I WAS in trouble after the first three bites. Arriving full circle around the long table dotted with 16 pints of steaming green chili and buckets of dirty tasting spoons, I wondered if I could continue.
Clipboard in hand and elbows sweating, I surveyed my scribbles beside each number: Mushy. Mealy. Tender pork, nice cubes. Cinnamon aroma. Gray tinged meat. Oily surface. Salty? Cumin strong. Heat builds, tangy finish. Uniform veg. TOO SPICY KILLS ALL!!
My mouth tingled and my brow dampened. Apparently my cheeks flushed, too, because the guy in the polo took one look at me, sucking air dramatically to try to cool the fire on my tongue, and asked if I needed a break. Yes, I was a green chili judge at last year’s Snowmass Mammoth Fest, and I lived to tell the story.
“Woooph! Just a little intense,” I croaked between bites of tortilla chips and red grapes, the approved palate cleansers set out for us 30 or so judges. I’d only lived out West for a couple of years; my New England-bred taste buds were still sensitive to certain Hatch green chiles. Since skulking away in search of sorbet was not an option, I crossed out the most objectionable numbers on my sheet, took a swig of water, and set out for round two.
The chili cook-off at Snowmass Mammoth Fest, known as the Snowmass Chili Pepper & Brew Fest until 2012, has been a showpiece since the event was founded 11 years ago. Sanctioned by the International Chili Society, it entices amateur and semi-professional competitors from Colorado, Utah, Texas, Arizona, and as far away as Wisconsin, to descend on Snowmass with ingredients, supplies, and a burning hope that their recipe is tasty enough to win cash and qualify for a chance to compete in the $25,000 World Championship Chili Cook-off (WCCC) in October.
“We’re looking for world-class competition chili,” says chief judge and former competitor Steve Tomasek. Qualities are well-defined: “Meat, usually beef, uniform in size, so it cooks evenly. A smooth, red sauce. No beans, of course. That’s about it. There’s a huge difference between the home-style stuff: odd-shaped pieces of meat and all kinds of vegetables, very individualistic.”
Green chili is often made with pork. “Unlike its red cousin, it’s going to show green chile, green chile seeds,” Tomasek says. “It’s spicier than the red, too. The main thing is that it looks like it was made with green chiles — it’s not pea soup. I’ve known people who’ve puréed different lettuces to try to get an accent green color.”
I ask if that’s cheating.
“No. But it would give a different flavor, and you’d probably pick that out.”
One winner in each of the three categories — red chili, green chili and salsa — is selected per tasting, this year held June 13-14, at the Snowmass Village Mall. Both tastings are free, but Friday’s features beverage vendors and live music. Concerts and a microbrew tasting ($55) are held afterward on Saturday afternoon, with music only on Sunday ($45), down at Snowmass Town Park.
Tomasek, from the Castle Rock area of Colorado, has been a competition cook for the past decade. He placed first at Snowmass in 2012, and continued on to the WCCC in Charleston, W.Va. Now in his second year judging, Tomasek usually eliminates two-thirds of chili entries on first taste alone. What avoids the cut?
“Both green and red chili, the sauce is not too thick and not too thin — like a nice gravy,” he says. “Flavor is a blend of spices — you don’t want just garlic jumping out, you don’t want pure heat, or all green chile flavor. Particularly in red, they’re going to look very similar. It’s tough. Of course, there’s always the cook who makes mistakes, the meat didn’t get tender or it’s overcooked and mushy.”
Gregory Virant and Lynn Kost Virant don’t make such gaffes. In their early 60s, the couple has made the 726-mile trek from their home near Omaha, Neb., to Snowmass for the past 10 years and to cook-offs around the country, mostly in Colorado and Illinois, since the mid-1980s. They trade off preparing red and green chili, depending on who wins a first-place slot before the other. Last year, Lynn’s green chili scored third in Snowmass; Greg’s red chili earned him first place and a trip to the 2013 WCCC in Palm Springs.
“We have the same recipes, but it’s hard to cook an identical pot time after time, you have weather conditions to deal with and all that jazz,” Lynn says. “Once you qualify for World, you don’t need to cook anymore.”
Since 1967, the WCCC has drawn top finishers from chili cook-offs held in cities across the country (more than 200 now).
“Last year Greg competed in all three categories, and he made Finals Table in both salsa and red,” Lynn says. The duo is ready for Snowmass, sights set on a WCCC return.
Originally a red chili amateur, Tomasek earned a seat at the WCCC Finals Table in 2012. “Guys in particular, we all think we make the best chili on our block or in our neighborhood,” he says. “Nobody should be intimidated. Two of our winners last year were rookie cooks!”
A slot in Snowmass might be open still (yours?). Top three winners receive $600 to $50, depending on category.
But for the Virants — and likely everyone else sweating over portable stoves this weekend — it’s not about prize money. “It’s the camaraderie,” says Lynn, eager to see friendly foes. “Chili cooks are just good people.”
Amanda Rae believes capsaicin can make people crazy. Nevertheless, she’s ready to judge chili again. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Everybody’s used to the chili their
mother made, with hamburger, beans,
and pasta,” says Lynn Kost Virant,
of Omaha, Neb. Competition chili is
different. “The majority of red chili at
the cook-off will be meat, cubed, tri-tip
or something of that form. It’s very
concentrated and rich.”