Despite the name, the Great Baltimore Fire Chili Cookoff is no firehouse chili contest. No, for pros on the chili circuit, yesterday's showdown in Fells Point was far more serious than that.
About half of the 14 contestants were plucky amateurs from Baltimore who competed on a lark because people tell them they make good chili. And, really, what could be better than eating and drinking beer on a sunny day by the Inner Harbor?
But for the rest, Baltimore is just one more stop on the chili circuit, another chance to qualify for the national championship of the International Chili Society, one of two (yes, two) chili contest sanctioning bodies.
Making the chili that friends and relatives say is the best they've ever had is great, said Chip Welsh, the owner of Red Lion Spicy Foods in Red Lion, Penn., and a chili circuit regular. But it gets you nowhere with the judges.
"Everybody's chili is always the best," Welsh said. "But competition chili has to be far more intensely flavored because it needs to impress the judges with just one bite of chili. You wouldn't even want to eat a whole bowl of it."
Competition chili is all meat, spices and tomatoes - no beans, bell peppers, rice, pasta or other distractions.
The serious contenders generally make their own chili powder. Some grow their hot peppers, and a few are picky enough to insist on a particular kind of grinder to mash the spices to the perfect fineness that will produce the thick, silky-smooth gravy judges are looking for.
By the middle of the afternoon, Jim Parker, who founded the Hard Times Cafe, an Alexandria, Va., chili parlor, had run out of the chili for the masses that was being judged for the contest's People's Choice Award, and he wasn't in a hurry to make more.
Parker has been competing for 25 years and enters as many contests as he has to every year until he wins a spot in both the International Chili Society and the Chili Appreciation Society International championships.
His focus was entirely on precisely browning a pot of beef cut into tiny, identical cubes to produce the right balance of tenderness and toothsomeness to wow the judges.
At this stage in his career, he said, he knows the individual judging patterns of most of the chili competitions on the East Coast and can vary the cuts of meat or boldness of spice he uses accordingly.
Baltimore's contest is a bit of a mystery, he said, since it's in its second year and the judging hasn't developed a predictable pattern.
"We have no idea what the judges are going to be looking for, so you just have to get lucky," he said. "First you have to be good, then you have to be lucky."
What the judges considered the best came from Christian Parker's bowl. Parker, from Ashburn, Va., was performing in only his second chili competition, but his plan to keep his dish "not too hot and not too mild" grabbed the attention of the judges, who awarded him $500.
In the process, he also qualified for the world championships.
Lew Wheeling of Pennsylvania took second, winning $250, and Welsh took home third place and $100.
On the less-serious side of the chili spectrum, Ben Albert, a union organizer from Baltimore, was also banking on luck. Luck that against all odds, a regimen of chili and Natural Light beer might chase away the lingering effects of a rough Friday night.
He and his girlfriend, Christina Stump, competed in the Baltimore contest last year, too, after seeing a chili cook contest on the Food Network and thinking it sounded like fun.
It was, and they came back this year to meet people and to help a good cause, the Baltimore City Fire Department's Fire Prevention Committee.
Their chili, in a stark departure from the pros, had chunks of green peppers and tomatoes and chili powder that was only homegrown in the sense that it was made by Hunt Valley-based McCormick & Co.
Nonetheless, it got the vote of Jeff Machusak, who drove three hours with his family from Somerville, N.J., for the competition.
The chunkiness was just what he was looking for in chili, and it wasn't so aggressively spicy as the others.
"For the general population, that's probably not a good idea," Machusak said.
In fact, many of the people who filled out People's Choice ballots picked the locals, noting that they tended to offer sour cream, cheese and hunks of bread - extras that the sanctioned contest doesn't allow and, consequently, that the out-of-town chili ringers didn't provide.
The award eventually went to Kooper's Tavern of Fells Point.
Taste comes first
One local who bridged the gap between the amateurs and pros was Christine Schimmel of Canton, a first-timer whose chili was every bit as robustly flavored as the veterans'.
Ned Kenyon and Charlie Hoehlein, friends from Long Island, N.Y., and Pikesville, respectively, ranked hers among the best, lauding its pleasant boldness and not overwhelming heat.
"Some of them were hot just to be hot," Hoehlein said.
Her secret, Schimmel said, is to cook it a very long time and taste, taste, taste.
"First you make it taste like chili, and then you add the heat," she said. "If you do it the other way around, you can never tell what it tastes like."