Check Out the Chili at Red Bluff's Annual Chili Cook Off
● By Melissa Mendonca
By Melissa Mendonca
For many, Red Bluff’s annual Chili Cook Off is a first sign of the 11 Days of Round Up and a fun opportunity to catch up with friends while joining in a friendly competition to determine the People’s Choice of chili offerings.
The chorus of organizations and businesses that compete takes a no-holds-barred approach to currying audience favor. There are bribes in the form of takeaways, winning smiles from cooks who fill plastic tasting cups as if serving in Grandma’s best china, and all-out groveling to post a vote. Then, of course, there’s the chili itself, always offered as if it’s the gold standard.
“It’s friendly competition between our business people and community members,” says organizer Michelle Blunkall, noting that the enthusiasm earns about $10,000 each year for Rotary student scholarships.
“The People’s Choice is definitely a popularity contest,” adds co-organizer Travis Dolling.
While the community mills about outdoors, inside the nearby Round Up Saloon, a much more serious vibe emanates. Here is where competitors from across the country are judged in a competition sanctioned by the International Chili Society. There are three categories of official competition: red chili, chili verde and salsa. The winners qualify for the World Championship Chili Cookoff, where first prize for red chili is $25,000.
In 2011, John Jepson of Merced had the winning entry in Red Bluff and went on to win the world championship, much to the pride of local organizers.
Red Bluff’s event has grown in prominence and popularity in large part due to the tenacity of Rotarian Ron Judson, who has held his own in chili cookoffs across the country and is fond of introducing himself to groups with, “Ron’s the name, chili’s the game.”
Judson and fellow Rotarians started the event more than 30 years ago and it continues to be a highly anticipated event for both locals and International Chili Society contestants alike.
In fact, it’s a favorite of David Hipskind of Elk Grove, this year’s chief judge, who, along with wife Kathy, are old hats at chili competition, having traveled the east coast, Canada, Hawaii and the western states as both contestants and judges. Kathy is considered a Grand Master, having won the world championship in 2004.
“Red Bluff has always done a great job,” says Hipskind, “It’s a great mix between the International Chili Society and the local folks. I’m always impressed by the number of people that come out to participate.”
While chili verde and salsa are competition categories, the traditional red, Texas-style chili is definitely king. Hipskind uses the acronym TACA to guide his judgment: Taste (not too hot or too mild), aroma (it needs to smell good), consistency (a good balance between meat and sauce) and appearance (it needs to look good enough to eat).
This is true chili— no beans or pasta allowed. By contrast, the People’s Choice entries are required to have one or the other. Not so for official International Chili Society chili. That competition chili is typically not prepared for public tasting, though some participants do take a stab at People’s Choice.
All International Chili Society contest chili is prepared on site within a three-hour competition period. Cooks bring their own equipment and ingredients and must do all prep work on site, including chopping and measuring. Nothing is left to chance, either. The Hipskinds have a preferred butcher and will pack their meat in dry ice to carry onto planes if they have to fly to a competition.
Contestants have around 10x10 feet of cooking space in which to work. When time is up, their chili is poured into a blind container and taken to the judging area, where it is carefully guarded against sabotage. All in all, around 25 to 30 people will support the judging of Hipskind.
There’s more than chili at the cook-off. Thanks to the Red Bluff Chamber of Commerce, a wide selection of vendors show up, as do musicians who perform in front of the courthouse steps. A classic car show also welcomes people to spend more time downtown.
“Red Bluff is so welcoming,” says Hipskind. “It’s not just the chili. It’s the people, the families. It’s just very, very rewarding.”