I never ate chili before I moved here. People who know me well won't be surprised by this, since I still have never eaten a chicken wing, because it has a bone in it, or a kiwi because I don't know if you're supposed to take the brown hairy skin off or not. I never ate pizza with sauce on it until I was in college, and never had a salad until I was in my mid-twenties. In 2003 I decided I needed to eat more fruit but had only ever eaten apples and bananas, so I went to the grocery store and got one of each fruit they had in the produce department (except kiwis), took them home, and tried each of them.
The end result is that I still prefer apples and bananas, but the point that I'm trying to make is that I am new to a lot of foods that people take for granted, and one of those foods is chili. I haven't had a lot of time to become a connoisseur or anything, and my parents probably don't even know that I eat chili now (they will once my mom sees my flickr page), but I know that I don't like big chunks of tomato, I don't like Texas style (without beans), and I like it with sour cream and shredded cheese if available. With that basic knowledge, I was happy to accept Bryan's invitation today to the 4th Annual East Tennessee Chili Cookoff.
For unknown reasons, the ribbon on the sign says 1st Annual, so I guess they've been reusing the sign for four years now. It was a very nice, surprisingly warm day to be downtown, though, and once we picked up our tickets we got checked in and were given our tasting passes:
I've only ever seen cookoffs on the Food Network, but it seemed pretty simple. Each booth had a number, and when you went to the booth they would punch off your number and give you a tasting sample:
Each booth also had a drop box, and when you decided which was your favorite you filled out the card at the bottom of the tasting pass, tore it off, and dropped it in that booth's box. The booth with the most is the audience favorite, and all of the votes are put in a raffle for other prizes. I'm assuming I didn't win, since no one has called, but I have the phone right here on the end table just in case. I did get a lot of chili, though.
Out of loyalty, we went to the school's booth first:
While they just have a nice generic autumn harvesty display in front of the booth, some of the other booths went all out with costumes and themes, like the Pirates of the Chilibean:
who served their chili out of a treasure chest:
or the Mowing Monkey's Chili:
Because, really, everything is better with monkeys. Some people, on the other hand, didn't really seem to think this whole naming thing all the way through:
I can think of no possible combination of "chili" and "lube" that doesn't turn out disgusting. Why not just call your chili The Runs? I didn't even sample their booth, because the name and the mental images of the aftermath of eating it put me off so much. Sorry, The Lube, but no votes from me.
My vote, instead, after I finished sixteen of the thirty chilis present:
(there are thirty-one on the card, but number seventeen was a no-show) and could eat no more chili was for the Laurel High School's chili, number twenty-seven. They kept talking about their secret ingredients being smoked poblano peppers, which I really couldn't taste because I had so much pepper in so many chilis that all I could differentiate was mild, hot, and mouth on fire:
and smoked pancetta, which was spectacularly delicious. There were so many beef chilis, a few with chicken, at least one vegetarian, that the pancetta really stood out, especially when you bit into a little nugget of it and got that smoky, salty almost bacon flavor. They didn't have many other votes, probably because their meat choice was so nontraditional, but since I'm not a chili traditionalist it really was a standout for me.
Once we finished and voted, we walked around for a little while to take in the rest of the sights. There was live music onstage, bouncy bounces for the kids:
some extremely tasteful shopping:
and, of course, the chance to observe my fellow Tennessee residents:
Thanks for keeping it classy, Tennessee!