Chili got your tongue? Judging the Hanover Chili Cook Off isn't easy
The 20th anniversary of Hanover's Chili Cook Off included more than 20 competitors hoping to make an impact on the judge's taste buds.
Ghon Eckley, chief judge for International Chili Society, and his wife, Kim Eckley, chief scorekeeper, were located in the back corner of the field, away from any onlookers who might sneak a peak at the judges' table. The couple has cooked chili since 1990, Kim Eckley said, and started judging in the last six years.
One might think tasting chili and salsa is the fun part, but there is a science and set of requirements that must be met, they said.
How to taste salsa
The same method must be used for every taste, Kim Eckley said. For example, if you taste one salsa with a chip, you must continue to taste each salsa entry with a chip to get the same amount of saltiness in every bite.
In addition, the chip cannot be dipped into the salsa, she said. A spoon is used to take the salsa and put it on the chip, using a different spoon each time.
The same palate cleanser must also be used each time as well, Kim Eckley said. Beer drinkers have to stay with beer, and water drinkers stay with water.
How to taste chili
Regardless of whether the entry is red chili or chili verde, winners must meet certain guidelines. The chili should have good flavor, texture and consistency with a good blend, aroma and color, Kim Eckley said.
The first step in judging chili is making sure the correct palate cleansers are in place. Aside from beer or water, sour cream and white grapes are necessary, Kim Eckley said.
"The dairy in the sour cream is the best to clean the palate," she said. "It takes the spicy sensation away and neutralizes it."
As for tasting the chili, spoons or flour tortillas may be used to scoop it up. However, the tortillas can become filling, so Kim Eckley recommends a spoon.
When the chili enters the mouth, Kim Eckley suggests pressing the meat to the roof of one's mouth to see how tender the meat is. It should not be too tough or too mushy, according to the International Chili Society's official judging procedures.
A judge should also smell the chili to make sure it smells, in fact, like chili. For example, the aroma should not remind one of spaghetti sauce or beer, Kim Eckley said.
The way the spices blend in the meat is another component that needs to be looked at, along with the consistency of the chili, she said.
Importance of a certified chili judge
Tana Harter of Leesburg, Virginia, is a certified chili judge. She enrolled in a three-hour International Society of Chili judging certification course two years ago, she said.
"Being certified is helpful for tiebreakers," Harter said.
Harter believes it's extremely important to cleanse the pallet. In addition, she has her own method of tasting chili.
First, after scooping the chili onto her spoon, she backs away from it. Then, she smells it, takes a long look at it and tastes it. Harter lets the chili sit on her tongue so her taste buds get a good amount of time with it, and then after she swallows the chili, she takes a moment to notice what's happening to her pallet, she said.
At events like the Hanover Chili Cook Off, the judging is far from a game.
"It's great when the judges take it as seriously as the contestants do," Ghon Eckley said.
It was important for the judges not to wince or make a face after tasting a chili they didn't like or talk to each other while making their rounds. The reason? Those gestures could influence the other judges, Harter said.
"You must remain expressionless," she said.
The judges at this year's event ranged from sponsors to volunteers, Kim Eckley said. There were 13 salsa entries, 13 chili verde entries and 19 red chili entries.
What judges look for
Good flavoring: Not too hot or not too mild
Texture: The meat cannot be too tough or too mushy
Consistency: Not too think or too thin
Blend: How well the spices have permeated the meat
Aroma: Usually a personal preference
Color: How bold or dull the color is
Information according to International Chili Society Official Judging Procedures