It was Sept. 10, 1994, about 8 a.m.
Simi Valley residents Sharon McCormack, Lillian Tedesco, and Tedesco's boyfriend, Dave Smith, loaded a host of cooking paraphernalia into the back of Smith's pickup truck and headed off to compete in the annual chili cook-off, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Simi Sunrise.
Smith, 45, was a veteran chili contest judge and Tedesco, 49, had accompanied him on occasion, but no one in this group had actually entered the ring.
They were pumped. The trio was representing the Mirage Hair Design salon of Simi Valley, and had named their entry "Mirage Hair-Raising Chili."
All was well until they reached Tapo Street and Los Angeles Avenue. That's when the back door of Smith's truck flew open, sending pots, utensils and various accouterments bouncing off the pavement.
Hardly an auspicious beginning. Who could have predicted that the Mirage Hair Design team would later take first place in the chili cook-off's amateur division?
All three will be back Saturday, to defend their title at the ninth annual Chili Cook-Off, Car Show & Craft Fair at the Simi Valley Drive-In. The cook-off, running 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., is part of the two-week-long Simi Valley Days celebration. Last year the cook-off raised about $9,000 for various charitable organizations.
The anticipated 15 to 20 contestants will be divided into three categories--restaurants, service clubs and individuals. But all will vie for the coveted Best of Show title and the People's Choice award (determined by the number of servings sold throughout the day).
With all this on the line, about a dozen judges to please and an expected 3,000 to 4,000 visitors' appetites to entice, the heat is on.
Let's meet some of the contestants.
In this corner, the Mirage Hair Design team:
"The meat in our chili was so much better than everybody else's," said McCormack, 27, explaining last year's victory. "We had more chunky meat than ground beef . . . but I don't know if I should be giving out our recipe."
The winning recipe was actually a joint concoction created by McCormack's two stove-mates, Smith and Tedesco.
"What can I tell you?" Tedesco said. "I'm Italian, so I dump everything into the chili. Bits and pieces here and there and some secret ingredients. And we used 15 pounds of top sirloin."
So, was the Mirage Hair-Raising Chili so hot it actually raised hairs? "It was mildly hot," Tedesco said. "It raised eyebrows."
And in this corner, B. J. Anderson, 56, representing the Rotary Club of Simi Sunrise:
A return contestant who finished third in the People's Choice category last year, Anderson said she doesn't have much chili-cooking experience, but does have a knack for juggling ingredients.
"I came from a big family in the Midwest [Lily, S. D.], the youngest of eight children," Anderson said. "We were pretty poor. My mother cooked with whatever she had in the house and as a result we got to be pretty creative."
Anderson will bring to the cook-off a box of spices to throw into the pot when the mood strikes. "The trick is to have your chili be spicy, so it has a little twang to it," she said, "but not so spicy that they don't come back for thirds, fourths and fifths."
Anticipating a stream of customers to her booth, Anderson plans to prepare 20 to 25 gallons of chili. She'll have Rotary Club helpers, but it will be grueling nonetheless.
"We'll have three pots going at a time. It'll be like the olden days when you'd hand buckets of water off to people to put out a fire," she said. "I was so tired last year, I thought I was going to die. About 3 o'clock it helps to have a beer, and if some spills into the pot, so be it."
In the third corner are Loretta High and other members of the Kiwanis Club of Simi Valley, along with members of their sister club in Santa Susana:
The Kiwanis folks, winners of the People's Choice award two years running, have a fierce but friendly rivalry with the Rotary Club. Whichever group sells the most chili each year reaps big rewards--namely, an old chili pot.
"It's very important for us to win," High said. "It's a priority."
So what is the secret to the Kiwanis' success? Beans, said High. "The reason we keep winning," she said, "is because we put beans in our chili." Like any good champion chili, the Kiwanis clubs have given theirs a name: Kow Chip Chili. High promises the name in no way reflects the ingredients.
And in the fourth corner, the Boys & Girls Club of Simi Valley, represented by about 10 youths, ages 13 to 15, all members of the club's Junior Leadership Program:
As a lesson in teamwork, the first task for these kids was to agree on a chili recipe. Some brought recipes from home, others scoured cookbooks, and one pulled a few strings. "One of our juniors is a star. He has his own agent and has done some commercials," said Linda White, executive director of the club. "He found a recipe from a Beverly Hills restaurant."