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September 15, 2013

No chill about it: Being an Altrusa cookoff judge will put sweat on your brow

TERRE HAUTE — Being a judge in the Altrusa Chili Cookoff is harder than it sounds.

In the first place, there aren’t just a few chili recipes to taste. On Saturday, there were about 35 different kinds of chili that I and four other judges worked our ways through in the Clabber Girl test kitchen.

What’s more, we were asked to judge the chili on several different criteria: taste, texture of the meat, how well the spices permeated the meat, aroma, color and consistency (not too thick, not too thin).

That’s not easy to do with more than 30 different kinds of chili in a short amount of time.

Jeff Ford, an experienced judge and restaurant owner, advised the rookie judges, me included, to first narrow the samples down to our top three or four and then work on the finer details. That was good advice; I’m sorry I only partly followed it.

Instead, I went through and tasted all 30-plus different types of chili, scoring them on a scale of 0 to 5 based first on taste, color and consistency. I figured I could hit those categories pretty quickly. The other criteria could wait, I decided. Even with that system in place, it took me well over an hour to taste and score them all.

Oh, and for those who suspect the cookoff is “fixed,” it’s not. After the winners were announced, someone asked me whether my favorites were also the winners. I could honestly say, I had no idea. Each chili came to the judges in numbered, plain, Styrofoam containers. We never knew to whom they belonged, and I still don’t know. Nor did we talk amongst ourselves about the chili. The tasting room was sometimes very quiet.

That’s not to say the judging process is perfect. For starters, it’s subjective and, honestly, all of the chili tasted good to me. The five judges were Ford, Mayor Duke Bennett, Tom McClanahan of WTWO-TV 2, Nick Steele of WMGI Mix 100.7 FM and myself. With such high-quality chili, it’s easy to imagine five different judges selecting completely different winners.

Speaking just for myself, I also noticed something I did that may have skewed my individual scoring results slightly. We started tasting chili about 1:30 p.m. and I hadn’t had lunch. I was pretty hungry, and the first couple of samples I tasted may have seemed a little extra good as a result. It was also hard to appreciate some of the hottest chili, which I saved for last, because the first couple burned my mouth, making it a little difficult to fully appreciate the later samples.

Still, even if all five judges had these same problems, it shouldn’t have affected the overall results because we all sampled the chili in different orders.

What’s more, I can honestly say, we each seemed to take the job seriously. We know how much work, expense and time goes into preparing each pot of chili. Watching the cooks as they wait for the winners to be announced, you can tell there is more than a little pride on the line.

The Altrusa Chili Cookoff is a fun event that raises thousands of dollars for area literacy programs. The Altrusa volunteers who organize it work very hard and do a fabulous job. They basically provide Terre Haute with a big party that everyone seems to really enjoy.

Congratulations to all the cooks. And a special thanks to the crowds of people who turned out, making for a fun day and helping Altrusa once again make a positive impact in our community.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

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