Say you're trying to finish writing a novel. You've written over 400 pages, and you're staring at page eight of chapter 20, which you devoutly hope is the last chapter. The phone rings.
Can you spend part of a lovely May Saturday afternoon judging a chili cook-off, the proceeds of which benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation?
Paralyzed by the blank white page, your choices are scrubbing the grout between your bathroom tiles with an old toothbrush or spending an afternoon sampling chili. Do you really have to think twice?
That's how I wound up at Oscar's, located at 333 S. Tejon St., last weekend. I spent a couple of very interesting hours with Phil Duhon, owner of Oscar's and father of adorable kids; Ketil Larson of enduring Phantom Canyon fame; and James Davis, the most charming man to ever make his way out of Georgia, who graces the kitchen at Blue Star.
Phil masterminded this whole event as a fund-raiser for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions. Phil organized a silent auction in addition to the chili cook-off. Plus, if you've ever been in Oscar's (you're missing out if you haven't been), you know they have money tacked all over the ceiling. For Make-a-Wish, they promised to remove the money and match the funds. When I left in the middle of Saturday afternoon, the monies raised had already topped $6,000.
This beautiful sunny afternoon brought out eight contenders, four each in the professional and amateur categories. The pros included The Famous, MacKenzie's Chop House, the Air Force Academy and Chucky Booker's Pizza, a not-yet-open-for-business pizza place. The amateurs included David, Spunky, Kurt and Norma, who came together because of their love of chili, respect for Phil, and belief that the Make-A-Wish Foundation was a damn fine reason to stand in the Oscar's parking lot brewing chili.
Judges rated each chili on a scale of one to five in the categories of taste, ingredients, consistency, spice and an overall "how much didja like it?" category. I asked Phil about parameters for this contest. "Red," he said, "however they define it." And we all knew, going into the judging, that our opinions would be subjective. Just as with pizza and barbecue, people have their own ideas of what constitutes good chili. Some like it thicker, some hotter, some milder. I'm not even going to get into the bean-to-meat ratio, but I will advise all of next year's hopefuls to make sure their beans are thoroughly cooked when judging time rolls around.
Armed with spoons, crackers and beer, we waded in. The four of us sat at a small back table in Oscar's and eyeballed, poked, sniffed and sampled the chili. A couple entries were strange. Only one was out-and-out bad, too much heat with too little flavor (and no, I'm not going to say whose). One seemed to contain some sort of game, and while I thought it was too gamey, the others found it intriguing. At one point Phil said to me, "You're a hard-ass. I like that." We found ourselves re-tasting one chili over and over, since it had a slight tangy, vinegary aftertaste we couldn't define and some of us couldn't decide if we liked it. One entry was embedded with spaghetti noodles.
The best part, for me, was spending a couple of hours with some very smart, funny, professional chefs. In their company, I'm a rank amateur foodie, but they made me feel right at home. James asked me what temperature I would cook pork to, to get it just pink in the middle. When I said I didn't eat pink pork, Ketil challenged me to name the date of the last case of trichinosis in this country. Doesn't matter, I said, my mama said don't eat pink pork. We talked about hog maws, pomegranate molasses, whether sardines were better on Triscuits or saltines, the difficulty obtaining fresh goat, and the correct pronunciation of Vidalia (as in the onions).
In the end, we had two clear winners. MacKenzie's was the hands-on professional favorite, while Norma took home the gold in the amateur category. Chili fans should definitely pencil in this event for next year. If you think you make the meanest pot of red this side of the Mississippi, you should start perfecting your recipe for next year. And if I'm called to serve as judge once again, I'll pack up my Tums and be there.
For information on next year's event, call Phil at Oscar's Tejon Street, 471-8070.