The setting was a field in Somers, Connecticut, and it was the perfect 70-degree sunny spring day. The NERCC is a fund-raiser for the Somers fire department as well as a day to honor our nation's vets, and the organizers and sponsors were given awards for their efforts. Numerous tents and booths were set up, offering tastings of chili and other foodstuffs with a few craft booths selling their wares (jewelry, purses, and the like) in between. The scent of chili peppered the air and our stomachs grumbled in anticipation.
After a brief but informative orientation, we were told what time to return for the salsa judging (11:00 a.m.) at which point each judge was randomly handed a folder. Inside the folder was a judge's score sheet that indicated whether s/he was to judge Table A or Table B (the semi-finals) or Table F (the finals). Amy pulled a B, while Chris got the much-more-desired F, lucky guy!
With about a dozen judges per table, and more than a dozen offerings, it took Amy about 40 minutes to taste all the entries. Most of the salsas were fresca-style - made of chopped tomatoes and peppers with cilantro and other seasonings - although one stand-out was a pineapple-and-red-onion salsa. We were instructed to taste each one the exact same way: cleanse the palate, smell, taste, report, then repeat with the next batch. If you cleansed your palate with a sip of water or beer or a chip for one, you had to do the same with all of them, and you were allowed to go back and re-try any of them once you completed the table. The judge's report form had room for comments and a place to mark your favorites - 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. When Amy was done, she headed back into the light, mouth on fire and in need of a beverage, while Chris headed in shortly thereafter to judge the salsa finals.
When the salsa-judging was complete, we had a few hours of leisure time before it was time for our next task, judging the most-important-of-all red chilis (we skipped the green chilis for fear of filling up). Red chili is what the New England Regional Chili Cook Off, officially sanctioned by the International Chili Society, is all about! We were forewarned not to try any of the chilis at the festival beforehand in order to keep our palates clear for the judging. So while judging all of those salsas had whet our appetites, it wasn't easy to find non-chili foods at the chili cook off. Still we managed it, enjoying a delicacy called "Pig Candy" (candied bacon on a stick made by Bristol's "Pumpkin Roll Lady"), and another called, "Cheesy Balls" (pulled pork rolled in dirty rice, deep-fried and topped with cheese sauce, one of many offerings from B.T.'s Smokehouse of Sturbridge, MA). Both were what festival food is made of - gloriously and deliciously decadent in every way.
We spent some time with old friends at the Onyx Moonshine booth and enjoyed the company of new friend and fellow judge "George" while we waited for the red chili judging to commence. Finally it was time, and suddenly, there was an air of severity to the festivities. We met several World Chili Champions, including the current one Bob Plager, who were on site to judge the cook off. They all seemed happy to share some secrets - the inside scoop on the politics of the chili circuit (who knew?), differences in regional tastes, and tips on better judging, as well as their own champion recipes. Bob's secret ingredient? Two prunes!
This round, Chris pulled the semi-final folder, while Amy got the most envied spot of the day - judging the final table for red chili. So what were we looking for in a winning red chili, exactly? It's no secret, as the ICS makes it all quite clear on their website. First - what is considered a red chili? Traditional Red Chili is defined by the International Chili Society as any kind of meat or combination of meats, cooked with red chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients, with the exception of beans and pasta which are strictly forbidden. Again, who knew? After that are the five judging criteria: First and foremost, of course, is the taste, or blend of flavors. Next is consistency, followed by aroma, color, and finally, bite (i.e. the spicy heat).
Tasting the wide variances in each cup of both salsa and red chili was a truly eye-opening experience and we had such a fun time doing it. It was a fantastic day outside, we were surrounded by good food and foodies, and we loved every minute! Thanks to "Mad Mike," the organizer of the NERCC, for inviting us and we sure hope we get to do it again!
To find out more about the New England Regional Chili Cook Off (including a list of this year's winners), go here: http://www.chilict.com/
For more information about the International Chili Society, including cook off information, current and past World Champions, and award-winning recipes, go here: http://www.chilicookoff.com/