MICHAEL HALL, 20-year-old night cook at an Alexandria, Va., chili parlor, won the National Capital Area championship chili cook-off last Sunday at the Prince George's County Equestrian Center.
He responded to his win with the subdued reserve common to chili heads. Whooping, leaping onto the stage, Hall screamed. "Let me tell ya'll people I couldn't a done it without my team." More screams. More whoops. Lots of hugging. "I couldn't a done it without my team."
Hall's chili had improved somewhat since last year. Hard Times Cafe owner and contest judge Barry Thompson, Hall's boss, who neither recognized the chili nor voted for it, said that last year's entry "tasted like spaghetti sauce."
"Cumin," "coriander," Hall screamed, when asked about the secret to his chili. Thompson found Hall "on the street" about 18 months ago, made him "head chef," and Hall's been cooking chili ever since. Now he'll go to California for the International Chili Society's national cook-off in October and a chance for $20,000.
Hall's was one of 23 entries in the third annual chili cook-off sponsored by the local chapter of the National Kidney Foundation. Nearly all the entrants, who donated their chili and fixin's to the all-day event, were amateur cooks like Buck Hanson of Morningside Sportsmen.
For the faint of heart, the Lion's Club had hot dogs, hamburgers and potato chips. Those who overindulged could cool themselves with ice cream sandwiches and popsicles. But for the hard-core, there were free samples of chili and ready access to a generous supply of ice cold beer.
The 1,500 or so chili fans who showed up at the annual competition got a lot more than chili samples. The Largo High School Band warmed up for the Silver Band, which strummed up a little T.G. Sheppard and Merle Haggard. True, dancin' on grass ain't much like dancin' on a parquet floor, but, decked out in cowboy boots and cutoffs, dancers wore the lawn into dirt. These are folks who take their Texas-two-steppin' seriously.
Hurt me now don't mean a thing
Since love ain't here don't feel the pain
I think I'll just stay here and drink
There was chili with saltines and chili with oyster crackers; chili with tortilla chips and chili with beans--to the side. Nary a bean would sully the chili during judging. That's in the rules. Beans are a garnish--entrants learn that fast. And after the first year they learned that judges don't go in for the macho stuff--they like to taste their chili, and blowtorch chili isn't necessarily a winner. On the other hand, they do like a little spice.
Bob McGuire, chief judge and chili cook-off organizer, said the big spices this year were cinnamon and cloves. Cinnamon and cloves didn't win many prizes, but they showed up a lot.
For those into hot, however, there was a jalapen o pepper eating contest. Craig Hall (no relation to Michael), of the Hall's Hacienda chili entry, polished off 27 jalapen o peppers to win the contest in three minutes. Hall, an Arlington resident who says he's been eating and cooking spicy foods all of his 33 years, attributed his victory to his "cast iron gut" and said he quit eating when he started "getting full." A technical rookie (this was his first victory), Hall said he's drunk bottles of hot sauce at parties before, all in "good clean fun." He does have hair on his chest.
An alligator or two could be seen on scattered sports shirts, but this crowd wasn't tolerating any lightweight prep types who consider El Rio spicy. We're talking about the kind of chili where the alarms don't even begin going off until 2 a.m. and then they keep you up all night.
This was a savvy crowd. Nobody embarrassed himself by asking the Silver Band to play Rocky Top. The band played it anyway, of course--the folks went crazy and everybody danced--but nobody requested it.
Tony Englert, executive director of the local kidney foundation, said the cook-off raised about $4,000 to help further education about kidney disease, which, he said, is more prevalent in this area than any other part of the country.
Chili cooks who believe their talents were overlooked in this cook-off can join the Virginia state cook-off scheduled June 19 and 20 at George Mason campus as part of the Fairfax County fair. Potential entrants can write the Clifton Gentlemen's Club, P.O. Box 185, Clifton, Va. 22024.
In addition, The Hard Times Cafe will rerun the War Between the States chili cook-off, scheduled for September (proceeds will go to the Kidney Foundation). Until then, enjoy Michael Hall's chili. Cooking instructions and ingredients should be interpreted loosely.
MICHAEL HALL'S WINNING CHILI (30 servings, more or less) 1 pound chopped suet 4 pounds ground pork 3 pounds cubed beef 4 pounds coarse ground beef 6 medium onions, chopped 1 head garlic, cloves crushed and peeled 1 green pepper, chopped 3 to 4 jalapen o peppers 2 28-ounce cans tomatoes 3/4 cup ground cumin 3/4 cup chili powder 1 tablespoon white pepper 1/3 cup salt
1/3 cup coriander
Render suet over medium heat in large pot. Add meat and brown well. Add onions, garlic, green pepper and jalapen os. Stir to combine and add remaining ingredients. Cook it until "it tastes right" (entrants in the contest fired up their stoves at noon and fed the judges at 4 p.m.). Right before serving, remove fat from the top.