With huge thanks to photographers Yannis Jan Dettingmeijer, Richard Smerdon and Philippe Visintini.
Though I’ve been called a real winner a few times in my life, I’ve never really won much in my life. Particularly in sports.
I made my little league baseball team. But everybody made their little league baseball team. I made my high school volleyball team. But you only went out for high school volleyball after you hadn’t made every other team. And then I mostly played a position that was sneeringly called “pine”. So, like almost every other man I know, I decided golf must be my game. And ended up decorating my hall closet with something that cost me three weeks salary and could have been occupied by a couple of cases of Chateau something that I couldn’t pronounce.
Then there were the sports I participated in that, for some unfathomable reason, some people don’t even consider sports. They require spending a lot of time in pool rooms, bowling alleys, casinos, horseshoe pits and card rooms. Most of them can be played with only one hand allowing for a drink (for proper balance, of course) in the other. And though I did get lucky and find a little extra money in my pockets some mornings, I never really considered them great victories.
Then, about a month ago, there was something in my inbox. It was an invitation to participate in a sport played by men in aprons. And, as I had some limited success participating in a sport played by men with brooms, I thought why not. Besides, in my only other time participating in this sport, in the very same arena, I had placed what I considered a reasonably respectable third.
Though there’s little chance that NBC will be reporting on the sport from Rio in 2016, we must remember that the sport played by men with brooms (but unfortunately no longer played by women in short, pleated skirts) took decades before it was finally sanctioned by the IOC.
That sport was curling. This sport was Chili Cookoff. The notice in my inbox came from La Frontera. And it was an invitation to compete in their annual event.
I said to Don Day’s Wife, “I think you should participate in the Chili Cookoff.”
“No you don’t”, she replied. “You think you should participate in the Chili Cookoff.”
I emailed La Frontera saying “I’m in.” But I knew I really should have said, “We’re in.”
The San Miguel Chili Cookoff held at the Hotel Real de Minas used to be the biggest social event of the year in this town. Then for some reason, three years ago, it was no more and nobody seems to know exactly why (despite Don Day’s exhaustive attempt at investigative journalism).
Noren Caceres (the one in the photo) and Jerry Harper, who run La Frontera, the restaurant with comfort food that I love getting comfortable with, had what I thought was a bordering-on-brilliant idea. They wouldn’t try to totally replicate the cookoff but they’d run a mini competition, add some extra food and drinks, good live music and a party atmosphere. This year was the third annual La Frontera Chili Cookoff. I’m hoping it some day rivals the original event.
Now Don Day’s Wife wears the aprons in our family. But though she’s definitely the best person at preparing food, I’m definitely the best at watching TV shows about preparing food. I can even stomach three straight half hours of Guy Fieri’s ego on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.
So, I thought, who have I been inspired by lately? And I thought of Doug Adams, one of the finalists on the Bravo show Top Chef that was filmed here in San Miguel. He had won the third to last episode with his Texas Red chile with brisket. That’s what I would make. But I would go one step further.
“Honnnnnneeeeeee, do you think if I brined a brisket, like you do for corned beef and pastrami, it would enhance the flavor of the meat in a Texas Red chile?”
“Sure it would, but you’d have to change the brine a bit or it will end up too much like corned beef.”
“Do you think you’d know what ingredients to add and subtract to make that happen?”
“I think so. Would you also like me to do it for you.”
“Ahhhhhh, Honnnnnneeeeeee, only if you really want to.”
Of course Don Day’s Wife wanted to. Because Don Day’s Wife knew that if I brined it and it turned out to be a disaster, she would still get blamed.
Meanwhile, I had spent a week researching the other ingredients for my Texas Red. I remembered a few years ago writing a piece that included the exact recipe for the chili that had won the world championship in Terlingua, Texas. I did a Google search for my name and the word Terlingua and there it was. I looked at the ingredients: Mild Bills Onion Granules, San Antonio Original Chili Powder, Sazon Goya, Mexene Chili Powder, Cowtown Light Chili Powder. You’ve got to be kidding? Even Bonanza, San Miguel’s little store with so much more, wouldn’t have any of these.
I went back to Doug Adams recipe and another one for Texas Red from a guy with a series on YouTube that I watch called Dude Food.
I liked that neither recipe used any store-bought chili powder. I liked the fact that John Stage, the Dude Food guy used ancho and pasilla peppers, two of my all-time favorite vegetables (and not just because they aren’t green), to get most of his chili taste and what I hoped would be, not a burn, but a warm afterglow.
One week before the event, off I went to the butcher (my job because of my fluency in parts of a Spanish speaking cow’s body). An hour after I got home, in went this huge plastic bag to the refrigerator, stealing a home from 24 beers. Last Saturday, out the bag came. And I spent an afternoon and a bottle of wine doing the prep. Or perhaps that should be we spent the afternoon doing the prep.
I said, “Would you like to show me which is the good fat and which is the bad fat so I can trim it?” She said, “Would you like me to do it for you? And I might as well cut it into bite-sized pieces while I’m at it.”
I said, “I’ll think I’ll just use salt and pepper to season the meat.” She said, “I think you should use nothing because the meat will already be well-seasoned from the brine.”
I said, “I’ll think I’ll use the aluminum skillet to brown the brisket.” She said, “I think you should use the roasting pan. It has a bigger surface area.”
I said, “Look at all of the wonderful juices the meat is swimming in.” She said, “I think you should be pouring them off. You’re boiling the brisket, not browning it.”
OK, enough. You get the picture. And I’m only through about the first 15 minutes of a three hour operation. But you already know who really made the chile, don’t you?
I headed out on Sunday at High Noon (isn’t that when most hangings take place?) by myself with my pot of chili, my ladle and hopes of not being embarrassed by my (or perhaps our) chile (depending on the results). I’m not sure if it was Don Day’s Wife’s hair or nails that was the excuse for coming later in the afternoon or the common knowledge that only men would stand around drinking beer while selling and telling people the secrets of something simmering over two cans of Sterno.
“I’m out of here, wish me luck”, I said to Don Day’s Wife. “Luck”, said Don Day’s Wife.
The standard uniform for a Chile Cookoff contestant is a guy who’s not sure if he’s going to a Jerry Jeff Walker or a Jimmy Buffet concert. And it seems essential to have a waistline that hasn’t seen the number 32 since the days when years started with a 1 instead of a 2.
And to have any chance of winning, the contestant has to have a name for his dish. Walter, who picks some fine Willie Nelson riffs, had almost as many hot peppers on his pants as he did in his White Chile of Death.
Collier, who had won the only other Chile Cookoff I’d ever competed in, called his Southern Colorado Black Coyote. And had marinated his turkey in mezcal.
My chile didn’t really have a name just a number. It was Chile No. 5. Like Chanel No. 5. But does anyone wear Chanel anymore?
It seemed like forever as we sat around like guys outside of a liquor store on the morning after they turned the clocks back. And then, suddenly, the judges, who were anyone who’d paid what I consider the ridiculously low price of $200 pesos to get in, were heading towards us.
I enjoyed talking to the judges. They liked the fact that there were good size chunks of beef in my no-name chile. A couple of women said they thought it had “great color”. A guy who made it known he’d wasted way too many days at chili cookoffs thought I had “a chance of winning”. Another thought it tasted a little too much of tomato. One more said he liked the consistency (on one beer run, I bought an extra bottle to possibly thin the chili down but thought better of it and drank both of them). One guy thought my chili could have been a little more spicy. Then his wife corrected him.
I enjoyed the music. A lot. A little bit country. A little bit rock and roll. From guys like Van Engel. And Wade Ashley and Wendy. Plus a couple of guest spots. And four or five great back-up musicians.
I enjoyed hanging out with the other chili cooks. They were all of the “good old boy” variety. They all drank beer. A couple of them sang along with the band. They all shared serving cups and spoons when the other guys ran out. They all retried each other’s chili. And they all finally stood very erect and still. The winners were being announced.
Third prize went to number seven, Tom and Patrick’s chile. Tom went up to get the gift wrapped cazuela of goodies. Probably because Patrick had already been winning most of the day in an intense game of cribbage.
In second place was number three, Nate, despite the fact that he’d lived dangerously and included beans, an ingredient, I’m told, that can lose you the Texas vote.
So who would get the giant cazuela? I was thinking number two, the guy I’d voted for. I liked Bill’s chile, the one with all those piquant poblanos. But as I sat at a table with Don Day’s Wife and my friends I must admit I was hoping Bill wouldn’t win.
“And the winner of the third annual La Frontera Chili Cookoff is number five.”
Number five? Oh my God, I thought, that’s me.
And then I did something really stupid. I danced up to the stage. And, no matter how bad my dancing may be, the dancing wasn’t even the stupid part. But I didn’t realize it.
I floated back to our table with an ear to ear grin. And didn’t even sweat the fact that I was lugging a 20 pound cazuela filled with goodies. And everyone at the table was looking at me. Staring at me. Because they all knew.
I had forgotten to take someone with me to the stage. The person I should have acknowledged as the heart, soul and inspiration of the winning chile at the Cookoff. The person who, let’s face it, really made it.
Don Day’s Wife had that look on her face. That look I usually respond to by saying, “Honey, can I get you another glass of wine.”
When I returned she was surveying the bounty in the bowl. And setting a giant wooden spoon aside.
“Are you ready to go?”, Don Day’s Wife said, in that voice that let me know she was very ready to go, carrying the spoon over her shoulder as we headed out to Stirling Dickinson Street.
“Bend over”, she said, “and tell me, if by some slim chance you ever get there, how many people are going to that world championship in Terlingua?”
La Frontera is located at Stirling Dickinson 28, in Plaza Pueblita, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from Monday to Saturday, Noon to 8:00 pm. Noren Caceres makes a fine chile that could probably win any Cookoff contest.