Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's Chili Cook-Off

I was thrilled to be one of the judges at the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's 3rd Annual Chili Cook-Off this year!  This is one of the most fun events I attend - it's lively, it's festive, there are both silent and live auctions with fabulous items to bid on, and everyone associated with the theatre is just wonderful to work with.

Buying a ticket earns you the right to taste chili samples provided by contestants, as well as beer samples provided by the Corner Brewery which very graciously hosts the cook-off each year.  Chili and beer on a bitterly cold winter afternoon - how great is that???  Do you need much else in your life?

I've attended this event all three years, now: I was a contestant the first two times, but was given the honor of being named a judge this year.  I was nervous - I've never officially worked in this capacity before, although we're all amateur judges with our own opinions, aren't we?  But as I drove to the competition, I heard the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "By the Way" on the radio ... it was bashert [bah-SHAYRT], otherwise known as destiny!

I tried to be particularly conscientious about my responsibilities on the other side of the ballot.  I watched as chili chefs decorated their stations and greeted each other (there is a core group of regular participants, so you get to see friends each year), but I kept some distance so that I wouldn't schmooze and lose my objectivity.  I was here to judge chili, after all, without being swayed by charm or humor, both of which were evident in abundance.

Some of the names for the chilis were most entertaining: Grown-Up Mutant Ninja Mock Turtle Chili, Gator Flame Chili, White Hot Tear Jerker, Jealousy - The Green-Eyed Monster, and even Slow Poked Smork (try saying that a couple of times, fast!).

My fellow judges - John Fischer of Gratzi and Eve Aronoff of Frita Batidos (yes, it was Eve's churro sundae that won first place as the best thing I ate in 2011!) - and I sat down to begin our mission.  Samples of each chili were brought to us one or two at a time, so that they would still be hot when we tried them and to lessen our confusion.

We agreed with John's suggestion to set up a point scale from 1-5 (low to high) and critique the chilis on four criteria:

- flavor
- balance
- body/depth
- creativity

We were seeking the Best Traditional Chili, the Most Creative Chili, and the Best Overall Chili among 16 entries.  Among 16 wildly varying entries.  Among 16 wildly varying entries that people had put so much pride and love into.

Judging may be fun, but it's also really challenging work!

I'm not going to gossip about who liked which chili, which chilis received high or low marks, why we picked what we did, how long or intense the debates were, or anything else like that.  I grant that this wasn't an A.A. meeting or confession to a priest with expectations of discretion!  At the same time, discretion is the better part of valor.  I truly applaud every contestant, even if - obviously - there were favorites among the entries.

So, who won?

After smelling, admiring, studying, tasting, scribbling, palate cleansing, discussing, debating, defining "chili," re-tasting, tasting yet again, etc., here were the winners:

- Best Traditional Chili: Three Dog Night Chili by Linda Kentes

- Most Creative Chili: White Hot Tear Jerker by Mike Sielaff

- Best Overall Chili: Sister Maria de Agreda's Soup of the Devil by Mike Mangrum

- People's Choice: Victor's Chili by T.J. (This was determined by having guests put money into "tip jars" at each table to vote for their favorites.)

After the judging, I was able to sneak over to the silent auction table and buzz in at the last minute to win my chosen item: a gift certificate to Mainstreet Ventures restaurants (of which Gratzi is a member, I must point out, since I plan to head over there after discussing potential Frugal Floozie Friday options with John!), as well as a cookbook from the organization which features some of its eateries' fabulous recipes.

It was great fun to watch the live auction, as guests bid against each other for a vacation up north and - even better, to my baseball-loving heart! - tickets to see the Tigers play the Angels in August ... a coupla potential contenders battling at the end of the season with the playoffs looming.

Best of all, though, was hearing the winners' names announced and seeing how happy and excited they were to have triumphed!  I made sure to meet each of the four winners, to congratulate them and to let them know how difficult a job it had been to choose them.  (Even though I had no influence over the People's Choice, I know the people had a tough time, too!)  I wanted each to know that his or her prize really was well-earned, and I wanted them to know how thrilled I was for them.

With many, many thanks to the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre for inviting me to the fabulous party!  I love being able to support a community organization, and having so much fun while doing so.  And also a huge "thank you" to the Corner Brewery (although I don't drink beer, the hospitality in hosting this event is tremendous!), to all the auction item donors, to the sponsors, to the staff, and to all the volunteers and guests.

Until next year!


Jenn said...

Wow... look at you go girl! I think by being asked to be a judge that just shows you know one wanted to compete against you this year.. you're just that good!! :)
Seriously, though, congrats on the honor. I would love to be able to judge a chili cook off! How Fun!

Marjie G. said...

Wow, Mary! Sounds like a really nice event for a great cause. Would love to go next year.

Chris said...

How fun! I just got to do that too, a few weeks ago. I liked two of the entries better than my own usual chili. We only had 9 entries and I was full, you must have been stuffed after 16!

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