Sweating through samples of the best local chili
THE SANTA CLARA
October 15, 2015
Saturday afternoon was windy and overcast, but at the San Jose Flea Market Chili Cookoff, the heat was on.
Two dozen professional and amateur competitors put their salsa and chili recipes to the test in the first annual event, which had been stewing in the mind of Flea Market Event Organizer Rich Alvari for years. But it wasn’t until Alvari connected with the savvy Mark Brown, an avid “chilihead” and cookoff competitor, that the event came to fruition.
“We had toyed with the idea of doing a chili cookoff before, but there were difficulties with the health permits,” said Alvari. “Then, we had the idea to make the event a charitable endeavor, which meant that permits would be less of an issue.”
With the help of the International Chili Society, a nonprofit that regulates chili competitions worldwide, Alvari was able to bring the event to the San Jose Flea Market. Proceeds benefit the Weingarten Children’s Center, which provides education to children who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Set apart from the carnival rides, food stands and clothing booths that occupy the majority of the Flea Market, the Chili Cook-off consisted of two rows of tents, under which chefs watched over bubbling pots of chili and eager chiliheads devoured their endless samples. At the end of the row was a concert stage, where Long Train Runnin’ (a Doobie Brothers tribute band) and San Jose’s California Cowboys performed for a rotating crowd of people spread out amongst a dozen or so picnic tables.
Upon entry, I purchased my official Chili Cook-off tasting kit, complete with a Dixie cup, plastic spoon and a wooden token, which was to be deposited into a bag hanging from the tent that I believed served the best chili (the tent with the most tokens won the People’s Choice Award and $500).
I got to work.
I began with a pro: Skip Cooley from Reno, Nevada, whose world-famous red chili has won over 170 competitions and appeared on the Food Network. Skip’s chili was accompanied by Chili Cheese Fritos, which is the culinary equivalent of black tar heroin. The chili had a velvety texture that was perfectly contrasted by the crunch of the Fritos. It was scrumptious, and easily made the top five chilis I had ever tasted. I thought he had it in the bag, but I continued to sample.
I tasted my way over to Chili Chili Bang Bang, where I devoured a spicy chili that triggered my sweat glands. I tried to put the fire out with the cheddar biscuit they gave me, only to realize it was full of jalapenos. The sweating worsened, and my weakness was met with disapproving looks from fellow chiliheads, who had facial hair and tattoos and called each other cool nicknames like “boss” and “chief.”
I tucked my tail in between my legs, purchased a bottle of water and listened to the live music as my tongue throbbed. Long Train Runnin’ was about halfway through “Takin’ it to the Streets” when an all-too-predictable, 50-something woman sprung up and began dancing alone in front of the stage, clearly yearning for a time before menopause and crow’s feet.
The song ended, her dancing continued, and I headed back to the chili.
Sample after sample, it all became a meaty blur (or a vegan nightmare). Harry’s Trashcan Chili incorporated macaroni (“how my mom used to make it,” he said), Wine with Swine ladeled a classic and smoky American chili and Double Decker offered a green chili with ground turkey, hominy and loads of cumin. I was drowning in chili, until I found one that stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Bold Flavors Catering made a green chili with ground turkey, beans and potatoes. It hit all the right notes: sweet, savory, spicy. It had texture. It had inventiveness. While the rest of the chefs were busy telling me what chili should be, Bold Flavors showed me what chili could be.
I deposited my wooden token into the bag attached to the Bold Flavors Catering tent. They were the winners in my book.
To put out the quaking chili fire roaring in my stomach, I went and got a soft serve (also because I love soft serve and hate self-control). I watched Long Train Runnin’ finish off their set. The woman from earlier was no longer dancing. She sat on the stage, drained of energy and full of chili.
With my mouth cool, my gut stuffed and my sweat dried, I left, savoring a singular satisfaction that only chiliheads can know.
Contact Jimmy Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.