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Published: Saturday, 11/27/2004

Hot times at the chili contest

The standard way to enjoy chili is with spoon, dipping deep into the bowl,and if it's a real cold day, going back for seconds. If we want to be authentic about the dish that originated in Texas, we would call it chili con carne, which means chili with meat, and it would not have beans. To give it a real Texas spin just say, "Give me a bowl of red."

Chili trivia aside, two events last week proved several bowls of red can be a catalyst to extend caring far beyond the eating.

This is the seventh year the employees of TNS NFO on Oregon Road put their best chili recipes forward to raise money for a worthwhile cause within the company. The chili meet always is held the Friday before the University of Michigan-Ohio State game, and employees are as outspoken about which team they prefer in their dress as they are about which chili they like in the people's choice votes.

At Riverview Yacht Club on 131st Street, chili and charity went hand in hand on game day. Sixteen members made gallons of chili for the party. The tasting tickets were $2 and the $357 proceeds were given to a family.

On a larger scale, the annual community-wide Chili Cook off sponsored by Mobile Meals is a valuable fund-raiser for the nonprofit social service organization that delivers meals and groceries to the homes of more than 400 clients in the Toledo area. The 2005 cook-off, with corporate and amateur teams in a hot competition, and samples for sale, will be Feb. 26 at Stranahan Great Hall.

I have come to look foward to judging the TNS NFO chili contest more than I have the Michigan-Ohio State game. I always hope that other companies will follow suit in a plan that is as much fun as it is competitive for the employees, and at the same time tells a fellow employee they are sorry for their misfortune and want to help.

After the TNS NFO judging the employees are turned loose in the chili buffet line to buy samples and give their opinions in the people's choice competition. The chili sales, a bake sale, and a raffle annually raise from $1,000 to $1,500 for the person, or family, that is chosen as the recipient.

Considering that I have judged all of the TNS NFO chili contests, that would mean about 100 different chilis tasted. And there have been other contests judged through the years.

So, how do you taste chili? The answer is, very gingerly, one spoonful at a time, with ice water and salt-free crackers to cleanse the taste buds between samples. Of course, there is always at least one cook who loses control of the hot sauce or jalapenos and makes a batch that dulls your taste buds beyond recovery. Judges don't rely on memory, but write down each evaluation as the event proceeds. As the final decision get closer, re-tasting is standard. This year's winner of the 12 entries was Simply Slammin' Chili made by Felechia Hines.

Contestants should never try to outguess a judging panel. I prefer a middle-of-the-road bowl of red with enough hot to linger, delivered by a good balance of spice, but not so much that the intensity overpowers other ingredients that are not given a chance for identity. It should have a fair amount of liquid and not be like a stew or as thick as a dip.

Now that white chili, made with chicken and navy beans, has entered the ring, the question is, does it qualify as chili? I like it, I make it, but I say no.

When we disagreed about the winners and asked for a sample recall, Judge Mary Beth Zolik of 101.5, the River, reminded, "It's only chili." True, but when the contestants are watching your every spoonful, it heats up to be more than chili.

Even though I burped all the way home, there was comfort knowing that tasting 12 chilis was for a good cause. Looking back on the logistics of the event, it seems that everybody won. When people take the time to shop for the chili ingredients, make it, and tote it to a contest to help a fellow employee, everybody is a winner.

It's like Ohio coach Jim Tressel's praise of the losing Michigan team after OSU's big win. He said they did a good job, they just didn't win.



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