The Day I Judged a Chili Cook-Off
Jennifer ClearyJennifer Cleary is a proud UGA alum and a television, film, and pop culture junkie to the point of becoming the go-to person for celebrity gossip. By her own admission she knows an obscene amount of useless trivia. If you've got a question about a show, film or celebrity, chances are she has an opinion. You can follow her on Twitter at @clearyje.
A couple weeks ago I took part in judging the 33rd annual Miller Lite Chili Cook-Off. As a chili enthusiast, I was excited to taste what I assumedwould be some of the best chili in the North Georgia. Sadly, it was not. While the chili could be considered average, the same can’t be said for the Brunswick stew and cornbread.
Before getting started, I received a great piece of advice: The cook-off is a marathon, not a sprint. Taste, don’t eat. Luckily, I listened, which I’m certain saved me from upchucking later that night. Each judge receives a placemat, used to keep track of what chili belongs to what number. A random selection of chili makes their way around the table, with you having to sample every one. To cleanse your palette, you can snack on crackers in between tastings. All judges are instructed to rate a chili’s tenderness, taste, and appearance on a scale of 1 to 9.
Seems simple enough, right? Well it’s not. I wasn’t anticipating that some of the chili would be harder to swallow than others. The chilis weren’t awful-tasting, but having to sample chili after chili for an hour straight can be rough, especially when you’re forced to sample overly spicy ones. There were two memorable ones, though. We first sampled a tasty chicken chili, which is a dish I hadn’t seen before. The other was a cocoa-inspired chili. While chocolate chili isn’t something I’d cook myself, I gave it high marks for originality. Overall though, for someone who eats chili by the barrel during the holidays, I was disappointed that none of the ones I sampled blew my socks off.
Little did I know that the chili was going to be the highlight of the day. Next came the Brunswick strew, which I’ll admit I’m not the biggest fan of to begin with. I couldn’t have prepared myself, let alone my stomach, for the horrendous stew that was to come. I could tell just by looking at the different kinds of stew that I wasn’t going to be able to sample them all—which I didn’t for the sake of my gag reflexes. Most earned 3’s or 4’s across the board for their sloppy appearance and questionable tastes. There were a few that looked (and smelled) like dog food. I’m sure we tasted the less stew than chili, but for some reason, the stew portion seemed to go on forever. That’s when I realized what my own personal Hell would consist of: Me having to eat bad Brunswick stew for an eternity.
Cornbread was the final portion of the judging. After sampling what seemed like countless Brunswick stews, I was looking forward to getting my hands on some deliciously sweet cornbread. This too was disappointing, but fortunately there were only two rounds of cornbread. Most of the cornbread were either too salty, or didn’t have the right consistency so they’d crumble in your hands fairly easily. The flapjack cornbread was the most baffling. Why would you make cornbread that’s flat and dry? However, there was one cornbread that won us all over. It was buttery, sweet, and moist, just the way cornbread should be.
Once the judging was over, we walked around the various chili booths at the Stone Mountain Park, which reminded me a lot of tailgating in Athens, complete with binge drinking and cornhole. The event is also the perfect place for people watching, particularly the women dressed in clothing that’s three sizes too small. I had a lot of fun walking around, listening to the crappy Van Halen cover band, and looking at the different booths. Some were pretty normal, but others weren’t afraid to be creative. My personal favorite was the ‘Butt Trumpet Chili’ booth, which featured a cut out of an oversized butt popping out of its Levis and a real trumpet places in the middle.
The chili may have been disappointing, but the time spent hanging out with friends and taking in all that the cook-off had to offer was worthwhile, even though I might have sampled the worst tasting Brunswick stew in the Southeast.