Mondays are difficult anyway, but today I had a very serious and important responsibility added on to my job.
The challenge: To judge an office chili cook-off at the Art Museum of Western Virginia that had reportedly already resulted in extensive trash talking among the staff.
When I arrived with my co-worker and fellow judge , Kevin Kittredge, we were greeted by a delicious, spicy aroma and nine steaming pots of homemade chili. The museum staffers hovered around and watched us, presumably waiting until we had completed the judging so they could eat lunch.
In reality, I believe they were studying the judges for some inkling as to which way we would lean.
A tall, thin, dark-haired man (who later identified himself as Frank Giannini, the head of young adult education) was particularly hoversome. Frank later removed his sweater, claiming the chili was raising his body temperature. I believe it was, in fact, the anticipation that had him peeling off layers.
The judges, who also included Mark Hatcher, program manager for the new art museum, moved down the table, sampling tiny cups of each chili. Having never judged a chili cook-off before, I decided to base my decisions on my opinion of a perfect, traditional chili: tomato-based, meaty and spicy with a nice variety of beans and other vegetables like onions, celery or green pepper.
I was surprised to find that every chili was different from the last. Chili truly is as versatile as the folks who make it. One version was a white bean chili with pork and jalapenos, another a sweet chili with stew meat and yet another a vegetarian version made with coffee.
Some contestants chose to use ground beef, some ground pork or spicy Italian sausage. While some chilis were loaded with beans and vegetables, others consisted almost entirely of meat, almost like a hot dog chili.
In addition to the “official” judging, the museum employees also voted on a staff’s choice award.
“If you haven’t voted for your taster’s choice, do so quickly,” someone shouted. “And don’t try to rally support for your own chili!”
In the end, it was Giannini — reportedly the worst of the trash talkers — who took away the grand prize for his “Groundhog Chili,” a concoction of marinated pork and stew meat cooked with red wine vinegar, wine and molasses. He said he has to credit his father-in-law with the recipe.
Second place went to David Brown, who identified himself as Deputy Director of Art and Chili Maker Extraordinaire. His chili was equally long in title: Chez Dave and Kris’ Therapeudic, Rambling, Rumbling Chili.
I liked the robust, spicy flavor of Brown’s meaty chili and the fact that he used two different kinds of beans in it.
I also liked the fact that Brown, too, was accused of having a “bad attitude” about the cook-off. Hey, what else are chili cook-offs for?
Frank and Dave went home with wooden spoons, brownies, some magnets and lots of bragging rights.
This is Frank, left, and David, right.
Congratulations, fellas! It’s time for everyone else to start planning a comeback.