Other than the runny stuff you have on hot dogs, my family growing up in South Carolina didn’t eat much chili. The standard fare in our house consisted of lots of KFC, TV dinners, macaroni and cheese, roast beef, spaghetti (our international option), and fish sticks (on Fridays cause the Pope said my granddaddy had to). When the chili option was offered, it was because there was a lot of leftover spaghetti sauce, altered only by the addition of red beans and the slightest hint of cayenne pepper. Corn bread (Jiffy with sugar added) and iced tea were served with it and everyone was happy.
When I moved across the country to eventually end up in Oregon, my palette was shocked at first, but I quickly caught on. It turned out that, once you got past the Rockies, Chinese food didn’t involve cans, not all peanuts were boiled, and Tex Mex was a glorious thing! Who knew!?
I had been in Oregon for about 2 years when I decided to participate in a chili cook-off at a company I’d been with for a few months. The office-wide challenge was scheduled for one of our regular Friday afternoon ‘stop work early and drink fancy beer and learn to like your co-workers‘ soirees, and it sounded like fun. I didn’t really know many of the employees outside of my own department, and I certainly didn’t know how seriously people there would take the whole thing.
After looking at tons of traditional Western-style chili recipes (and putting off shopping and cooking until the very last minute), I fired up my off-brand slow cooker and just opted to make a pot of good old spaghetti sauce chili…the kind my grandmama used to make. I doctored it up a bit by adding what seemed to be a sufficient dose of chili powder and I even threw in a few red pepper flakes I figured there would already be a ton of better chili chefs there than I could ever hope to be, and I thought, hey…something different would be fun…right?
Um…not so much.
I set my innocent enough looking Brand X crock pot alongside my competitors’ Rivals and officially trademarked Crock Pots, grabbed a foo-foo beer and headed over to the side of the room to find a spot from which to watch the festivities. I had no more than found a chair and tasted my beer when, from across the room, came the loud exclamation/question that shook me to my core:
“WHO THE HELL PUT SWEET BASIL IN THIS POT OF SO-CALLED CHILI???!!!”
I wasn’t quite sure how to react to being outed as a faux chili-maker, so I just looked around the room like everyone else was doing…trying my best to looked shocked at this affront. Who would DO such a thing? SWEET BASIL…the very nerve! Tsk!
I bolted, suddenly
deciding remembering that I had some urgent work to finish back at my desk. I made my apologies and sidled out of the room…putting as much space between myself and that off-brand cooker fiasco as possible!
I heard a few hours later that I’d taken last place in the cook-off. I waited for everyone else to leave before I returned to (anonymously) retrieve my (sadly still full) cookware, wondering how they judged it to be last place without even tasting it!
I know, I know…it’s a sad story of wasted food and an ego crushed even more than the tomatoes in a jar of Ragu, but I recovered. It’s worth mentioning that I still don’t care for fancy beer, but I actually do LIKE my own chili. In fact, I have a big old pot of it simmering right now. These days I do add a good bit more chili powder and I learned to replace the basil with cumin, but it still has enough day-old spaghetti flavor to make my inner Southern girl happy, and my cook-off losing inner chef smiles with every spoonful.