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O.Henry Ending

The Chili Queen

The prize is in the pot!

By Barbara Rosson Davis

It has been widely reported that capsicum spices make one wickedly hot. Even dreams catch fire! Billy the Kid, a lover of chili, once supposedly said “Anybody who eats chili can’t be all bad . . . even when the bed-linens tend to levitate after eating three bowls.”

This chili tale is not one of enraged cannibals butchering conquistadors, seasoning them with chiles, cinnamon, cilantro, cocoa and corn, simmering the lot, then feasting. Rather, it’s a spicy story of a “Chili-Cook-off” that takes place at the original — and no longer in existence — Roosters Gourmet kitchen shop on State Street.

Chili, the concoction, with or without beans, has many versions. Recipes abound — some guarded, some misguided and some worthy of a prize. Thousands of known chili-pepper varieties exist, ranging in hotness and assorted colors. “Carolina Reaper” (grown in Rock Hill, S.C.) is a hybrid cultivar, rated the world’s hottest pepper, as referenced in Guinness World Records, circa 2012.

At Roosters, proprietor Mary James Lawrence bags the spices I’ve selected and points to the newly-arrived Calphalon pots, the largest of which catches my eye. But the price of $145 is beyond my budget.

Then I see a sign that tempts the competitor in me: “Enter Roosters’ Chili Cook-off and Win the Pot!”

Fortune favors the brave. I fill out an entry form, fire up the brain, chili on my mind, and go home to simmer some beef. Roosters’ contest requires a recipe plus a sample of the contestant’s homemade chili to be judged by local chefs and restaurateurs. If my chili is going to stand a chance of winning, it has to be truly “after-burner” distinctive, mouthwatering, and so irresistible the Judges cannot stop eating it. Damn the mouth, defy the stomach! I add some kicker-ingredients: authentic Spanish chorizo, smoked (hot) pimenton (Spanish paprika), Tio Pepe Fino Sherry, tons of garlic and an assortment of fresh chiles: Anaheim, jalapeño, habañero, serrano, poblano and pasilla. The beef is grass-fed, Guilford-county-raised, simmered for hours in chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, onions, oregano and garlic, plus chiles, with a whole bottle of Corona beer and more sherry. In the morning, I add sautéed chorizo chunks, more onions, fresh peppers, smoked paprika, dark kidney beans, a can of enchilada sauce and tomatoes.

I then let my chili meld its aromatic flavors for two days and serve it with chopped fresh cilantro and three shredded cheeses melted on top.

Judgment day arrives: Twenty contestants and onlookers surround the tasting table at Roosters. The five judges sample — and re-sample — each recipe from numbered bowls. I have no idea which bowl holds my chili as the judges taste, nod and whisper. Their eyes begin watering . . . Mary James announces, “Only one female entry, folks.”

Me? Up against a passel of good old Southern boys? More buzz. Thirty minutes go by. Now I’m sweating. 

Finally, after conferring with the judges (for what seems eons), Mary James announces, “It’s unanimous! — Number four is the winning chili!” She smiles at me.

“Congratulations to Greensboro’s Chili Queen!“ she beams, handing me the huge Calphalon pot. My eyes start to water, but not from chiles.  OH

A native Californian, Barbara Rosson Davis is a writer living in Greensboro since 1979. A lover of chili, she concocts new versions of her original winning chili, whatever the season.