John "Whiskey" Wilt, a self-professed "old cow hand" turned government bureaucrat, rested in the shade of a tall tree at George Mason University Saturday as his wife, Buttons, served chili from a hot iron kettle.
"I've seen people come 50 miles to taste my chili," John Wilt, a native Texan, said. "I set it up in the back yard and people come calling."
Wilt, his wife and hundreds of other chili aficionados, cooks and just plain folks had brought their ingredients and proceeded to create their idea of the perfect chili for the ninth annual Virginia State Chili Championship at the Fairfax Fair.
"There have been gun fights over chili," said the gray-bearded Wilt, who was dressed in a cowboy hat, blue neckerchief and boots with spurs. "Now, we got unbiased judges to choose the winner. Things have calmed down since."
Although no one was brandishing firearms, things were anything but calm at the cook-off.
In the parking lot at the university's Patriot Center, where the fair is held each year, more than 100 contestants, cooking in teams and lodged in tents or booths, bustled about preparing their masterpieces, talking, perfecting, tasting, smelling and comparing under the watchful eye of 18 judges. Teams had decorated their booths with banners displaying their chili's names, and some showed off trophies.
"This is Woodstock for the over-30 crowd," said Lee Ruck, longtime chili connoisseur and chief judge of this year's event. "And it gives folks a chance to be good ol' boys," the Clifton resident said.
His social group, the Clifton Gentlemen's Club, was among the sponsors of the event this year. Fair-goers gave a donation at each chili-maker's booth in exchange for a taste of chili, and proceeds went toward the scholarship program at George Mason University.
Awards at the competition ranged from best chili and best showmanship to the "chilidiot" award for the person "who makes a particular pain of himself during the cook-off," Ruck said.
The first-place cook-off winner receives $1,000, which goes toward expenses to travel to and cook at the Terlingua (Tex.) International Chili Championship, held in November each year.
Terlingua is the super bowl of chili contests. Many cooking "teams" roam from cook-off to cook-off, perfecting their recipes as they go in preparation for the big event.
Jay and Pam Hawkins, who call their concoction "Toxic Waste Chili," started entering competitions in 1984 and have won several trophies. Jay Hawkins said that among the numerous spices that go into their chili is a secret ingredient containing four kinds of dried peppers, plus "uranium, found in the back yard. That's why my T-shirt glows."
Another chili entree, "Two Flush Chili," was served out of a wooden box built to resemble an outhouse -- red toilet seat and all. The man with the ladle, Dick Agnew, of Philadelphia, said that he and his friends, who live in Fairfax County, have traveled the east coast over the past eight years entering various state and local cook-offs. "It's a nice way to spend a Saturday afternoon," he said.
Although each of the judges had an idea of perfectly made chili, Judy Turner-Myer, a new judge this year, said the panel agrees that chili must follow five criteria: color, aroma, texture, taste and aftertaste. "A good chili will burn in your throat, not in your nose or mouth," she said.
Tom Bednash Sr. gave his secret to the chili made by four Fairfax families. "Just before it's done, you add red wine vinegar. It blends all the flavors together," he said.
It didn't help this year, though, because the group lost again.