The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

February 26, 2012

Behind the scenes at Chili Challenge

By Kelly Kazek

— I think y’all have a right to know what goes on behind the scenes at the Hospice Chili Challenge.

As a not-so-highly paid professional journalist who was an official Chili Challenge judge – I have the runny nose and heartburn to prove it – I felt it my duty to tell you if anything kinky was going on.

As a first-time judge, I wondered if there was bribery or coercion involved in choosing who got custody of the giant chili pepper trophy each year. I was hoping for a scoop.

At the booth for Suzanne’s Bakery and Eatery, I asked if the free chocolate cupcake being proffered was a means of swaying my vote. Knowing my proclivity for chocolate – is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t? – I figured she was trying to take advantage. Turns out, she was offering cupcakes to everyone, even regular people who weren’t wearing nametags that said “Judge” right there on them. No irregularities could be detected, although a little helper at Suzanne’s booth, Caleb Smith, was dressed as a chef and looking awfully adorable as he handed out the tiny cakes. When he learned I was a judge, he said, “You can have two.”

But I just couldn’t bust him. Not only was he too stinking cute, there was no way I was giving back that second cupcake.

As much as it goes against my ethics as a journalist and newly crowned chili judge, I walked around the gym at Athens High School in my undercover role, trying to let contestants know I wasn’t above the offer of cash or truffles. Of course, I would have had no choice but to keep the cash and eat the candy. Otherwise, someone might figure out I was writing an expose.

By the time I took my seat at the judges’ table between Mayor Ronnie Marks and Garth Lovvorn Sr., I realized the Hospice board eliminates any temptation for bribes by conducting a “blind” judging. Ronnie, Garth and I sampled spoonfuls of chili from tiny numbered cups without knowing who the chef was, making the entire competition completely fair.

It also made offers of candy and gifts a moot point, which you would think would have been disclosed before I agreed to judge.

It wasn’t long before the first sample cups of chili were placed before us and I realized how unprepared I was for the task. Not only have I done very little research on chili – does it have a bouquet? Is it full-bodied? – I also forgot my Alka-Seltzer. Hospice board members thoughtfully provided Tums, which was comforting, and a trash can beside the table, which was worrisome. Would we find a need to suddenly grab the can and export a chili sample that had been recently imported?

I hoped not.

I had done enough research on chili judging to find this quote: “You should bring an educated pallet to your work.” No one can say I don’t have an educated pallet. I am always putting it to the test by giving it samples of fried things and ice cream – I’m sure it has a Ph.D. in chocolates by this time. So far, it has not failed to let me know if something tastes truly disgusting (just so you know, my pallet has yet to find any flavor of ice cream disgusting but I’ll keep trying and let you know if it does.)

While the judging was completely on the up-and-up, I may have to file a complaint against the mayor. It just didn’t seem fair that the sign behind the judges’ table bearing his name was about 3 feet longer than the ones for Garth and me. His was also much higher on the wall.

Hmmm. Could it be Mayor Marks offered something of value in exchange for getting his name up in, well, marker on the gym wall? Municipal elections are just around the corner.

I will be looking into this injustice. I won’t let my readers down.

In the end, Garth and I decided it was wise to let the mayor take the majority of the credit. That means he also will get the majority of the blame if someone doesn’t like our choice as winner.

Normally, I wouldn’t be so worried about repercussions of my decision but after reading one of the cook-off rules on the website for the Chili Appreciation Society International, I grew concerned. One rule stated: “No chili contestant may discharge firearms or use any pyrotechnics or explosives at a chili cook-off. Contestants discharging firearms and/or using explosives or

other pyrotechnics will be disqualified from the chili cook-off.”

What could possibly have happened to lead to that rule?

Was my life in danger?

Or perhaps it was another kind of explosion the society was concerned about, the kind that happens when you sample 32 different types of chili before noon.

Now that’s a threat I don’t take lightly.