Their luggage packed with meat and spices, 35 chili competitors are headed to Fells Point for the 31st Maryland State Chili Championship Cookoff. It's the first time the competition has been held in Baltimore.
The winner at the cookoff, which will be held Saturday at Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and benefit the Living Classrooms Foundation, will get $750 and the right to compete in the World's Championship Chili Cookoff this October in Reno, Nev.
Competitors will be coming to Baltimore from Texas, Florida and North and South Carolina. Michael Freedman will be traveling from his home in Connecticut with a carry-on cooler stocked with spices and 18 pounds of meat.
"You can lose your pots and ladles and get by," said Freedman. "You lose your meat, and you've got big problems."
Meat and spices are the chili competitor's stock in trade. Beans are not. The official rules of chili cookoffs sanctioned by the International Chili Society forbid the use of beans and pasta.
The society's rules are emphatic: "Traditional red chili is defined as … any kind of meat or combination of meats, cooked with red chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients, with the exception of BEANS and PASTA which are strictly forbidden."
"Basically, beans are what the ICS considers to be a filler," said Freedman, who not only competes in chili cookoffs but organizes them. Freedman also judges competitions and teaches judging skills to others. "A filler absorbs flavor," said Freedman, who will be among the competitors Saturday, "and you don't want anything to absorb flavor except your meat."
The anti-filler rule at ICS events is not a grand statement on the authenticity of chili, which some purists insist must be made without beans. International Chili Society president Carol Hancock said few contestants on the chili cookoff circuit have fierce opinions on the subject of true chili.
"People like to eat beans with their chili if they like to eat beans with their chili," said Hancock, whose Shotgun Willie Chili won the World's Championship in 1985, before she took over the helm of the San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based organization.
But a competition is different, Hancock said. "We're looking for chili in its purest form. If there were beans or pasta, then that dilutes the flavor, beans especially," she said.
Three years ago, the ICS introduced a "homestyle category" at its World Championships, designed for novice cooks with the kind of real-world kitchen-sink chili recipes that you see in local competitions at bars and firehouses.
Although beans and pasta were allowed in the homestyle competition, it has been a bean-less, pasta-less, competition-style chili that's won each of the first three years.
Other competition innovations have worked much better. A salsa competition was added in 1995, and a chili verde (green chili) category was added four years later.
But the red chili competition is the big one. "Red is the ultimate prize," said Freedman. "Green has the lesser prize structure [$400]. Everyone wants to win red, but no one's unhappy if they win green."
Over the years, competitors have refined their techniques and recipes, all to gain a competitive edge.
They have moved away from using fresh peppers and toward pepper powders and spice blends, which they say are more consistent. Contestants find spice blends they love and stick with them. Freedman buys from Mild Bill's Spice Co, a family-run business in Ellis, Texas. And he's devoted to the San Antonio Red Chile Blend from Pendery's of Fort Worth, Texas.
"Many enjoy this as a finishing powder for competitive cook-offs," Pendery's catalog says.
And although meat can be shredded or ground, it's mostly hand-cut into cubes these days, for the sake of appearance. Hancock knows when that practice came into vogue. It was after her chili using cubed meat won the world's championship.
"I wasn't the first one to use that style," Hancock said, "but I was the first one to win with that style."
You never know what will put a recipe in the winner's circle.
The special ingredient in the first-ever chili to win back-to-back world championships, Bob Plager's Pools Brew chili, was two pitted prunes.
The prunes, Hancock, said were not used for flavor but to add an attractive sheen.
Freedman said that victorious chili recipes have distinct, pronounced flavors, but not heat.
"Competition chili is a little more bold, a little more in your face," Freedman said. "But it doesn't have to be hot. In my mind, you have to have a good blend of different flavors and something in your chili that makes the judges say, 'Wow.'"
Freedman, the vice president of a printing firm, said perfecting a chili recipe is like chemistry.
"You're measuring, you're mincing. You get to a certain stage, and you think, 'I'm going to kick it up a notch.' As you continue to grind and blend it, you wonder if you've just killed yourself or if you've just made yourself a champion."
Diane Lentz, the matriarch of a food-competition family, agreed that powdered spices and pepper blends are the way to go in a cookoff.
"Simplify your ingredients," Lentz said from her home in Nicholasville, Ky.
"Some people roast their own cumin seeds and grind them up. That's too much work. Some competitors boil down their peppers. Maybe if I lived in Texas, I'd do that. But not when you can get true chili-pepper blend from a spice company. I leave the pepper-growing to the farmers. I get the powders."
The public is invited to come taste chili on Saturday. At any given time, according to cookoff organizer Matthew Levy, about 15 competitors will have chili ready for tasting, depending on where they are in their cooking process.
The public will determine the "People's Choice" award, which carries a $500 prize. Unlike the chili that competitors make expressly for judging, the chili they serve to the public is a variation of their basic recipe but extended, for reasons of cost, with beans and/or pasta.
At different times of the day, contestants may be serving one or both of their batches.
Up until this year, the Maryland cookoff had been held most often in Germantown, where it was run by Jim Parker, a partner in the Hard Times Cafe chain of restaurants. When Parker's death last September threatened to leave a gap in the competition schedule, Levy, a, financial adviser for Merrill Lynch and avid chili competitor, decided he wanted to bring it to Baltimore.
"I've always dreamt of having a chili competition in Baltimore, right on the water," Levy said. He found a charitable partner in Living Classrooms, which has its headquarters in the waterfront Myers-Douglass museum. Levy said he hopes to have 1,500 guests show up on Saturday.
Public tasting hours at the Maryland State Chili Championship Cookoff at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, 1417 Thames St., are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission, which includes a tasting kit, is $10. For more information call 443-280-2884 or go to chilimd.com.