Clouds of sinus-searing dust and the pungent odor of chiles and chili powder fill the air. Western and bluegrass bands blast away; hawkers urge passers-by to buy souvenir T-shirts or badges or belt buckles or to sample their special chili. There's a long row of portable Coleman stoves manned by cooks in strange costumes, and a lineup of rent-a-johns perched on the rocky landscape. Yep, you're at the annual International Chili Society's World Championship Chili Cookoff.
It's the biggie in the chili cook-off world, drawing chiliheads from various parts of the United States as well as from Mexico, Canada, the Cayman Islands and other parts of the world. The faces may change from year to year, but this truly American celebration never loses its appeal. This year's cook-off is scheduled for next Sunday at what has become the classic spot for the event, Tropico Gold Mine, a ramshackle remnant of a mine located near Rosamond, Calif.
Civilized territory this is not. It's a desolate, rock-strewn flatland approached by dirt roads that add authenticity to the whole affair. Just the sort of place one should be cooking chili. And not just any chili, mind you. The best chili. The problem is that anyone who has ever cooked up a batch of chili is certain that his or hers is the best. That's how chili cook-offs like next week's World Championship battle got started.
Not to be taken lightly, this year's event is actually ICS's 20th annual competition. But it's more than just one more chili war. By the time a new champion is crowned this year, chiliheads from around the world are expected to have raised more than $2 million for the many charities that benefit not only from the championship cook-off but from local and regional preliminaries as well.
Next week's battle for the chili crown and $35,000 in prize money and awards will begin at 9 a.m.; the winner will be announced at about 4 p.m.
There will be plenty to keep the family amused all day long. Not only do the contestants vie for cooking honors, they also compete for showmanship awards. Thus each of the individual cooking stalls--and the cooks and their crews--are decorated and costumed to the hilt. Subtlety is not the watchword here. Cooking teams clad in baggy red long-johns; a Scandinavian team wearing Viking-style fur headgear with horns, and a British team in top hats and tails add to the color of the event. Flamboyance, silliness and a certain amount of borderline bad taste is the norm. But, as with everything else surrounding the cook-off, it's all good clean fun . . . a wonderful way to spend a day in the country with the family.
Besides watching the ever-changing cooking scene and listening to the hoedown music, spectators will find they are rubbing shoulders with celebrity chili fans such as Ernest Borgnine, William Conrad, John Denver, Joanne Dru, Jamie Farr, Linda Gray, Lorenzo Lamas, Peter Marshall and others. Clog dancers, an air show featuring sky divers and the Condor Squadron in its World War II planes plus various other activities will fill out the day.
There's plenty of camping space for those who come early in a camper or RV, but there are no water, power or sewer hookups. Admission is $7 for adults and $2 for youngsters under 12. For more information, telephone the ICS office at (714) 631-1780.
In preparation, you might try your hand at creating a bit of true Americana for dinner. You can dress our California-style chili with chopped onions and cheese, but do honor the basic rules of real chili-making and skip the beans. Genuine chiliheads never add them. TYPICAL CALIFORNIA CHILI
10 cups (about 4 to 5 pounds) lean chuck or clod roast, cut into - to 3/8-inch cubes
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
10 tablespoons oil or kidney suet
3 1/2 cups finely diced onions
1 3-ounce bottle chili powder
3 1/2 tablespoons ground cumin
3 tablespoons chopped oregano
1 tablespoon brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
1 4-ounce can whole green chiles, seeded and finely chopped
1 15-ounce can beef broth
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 12-ounce can beer or 1 1/2 cups water
Saute meat with half of garlic in 5 tablespoons oil until browned. Saute onions separately with remaining garlic in remaining 5 tablespoons oil until tender but not browned. Add onions to meat; then add chili powder, cumin, oregano, brown sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer 10 minutes. Add green chiles, beef broth, tomato sauce, cayenne to taste and beer.
Cover and simmer over low heat 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours until meat is very tender. Chili will be soupy at first, then will thicken as it cooks. Uncover last half hour. Stir frequently and do not allow chili to stick to pot or become too thick. Add more beer or water if needed. Skim off any excess fat. Makes 1 gallon, or 12 to 16 servings. PRODUCED BY ROBIN TUCKER FOOD STYLIST: NONA BAER ACCESSORIES FROM LAWRY'S CALIFORNIA CENTER, LOS ANGELES