The only sure thing about chili is that everyone has a different opinion on what makes it good.
That is probably a reflection on its origins, when range cooks had to whip up something easy yet tasty and nutritious with what was available for the hungry hired hands on those long dusty Texas trail rides. No two batches were ever the same.
“Chili is different to different people,” said Phil Phillips of Atenas, one of the participants in Sunday’s Atenas Chili Cook Off.
Phillips’ Marine Corp League chili won the previous year’s cook off. He uses five kinds of chili powder, yucca starch and his secret ingredient of Panama ghost peppers, which are “not horribly hot.”
Brad and Jean Marie Estabrool of Atenas make authentic Texas chili that uses only chunks of meat and no hamburger.
“Chili should be a meal,” Brad Estabrool said. “The secret is a lot of meat and not too hot. You don’t want to burn taste buds.”
Another participant, Matt Meeks, owner of Carne Rico Jerky, makes an unusual jerky smoked chili with smoked meat and three types of beans: black, red and white.
Meeks, a resident of San Francisco de Dos Rios, believes the secret to making excellent chili is to have a burst of flavor “in the front and in the back.”
“You want the heat to last just a short time,” Meeks said, “not consume your palate.”
Daniel Sheaks, an Atenas professional chef, makes a chili called chili chili bang bang that uses five types of meat, three types of chilies and spices all mixed together.
“The secret is to start with good ingredients and unprocessed, fresh herbs,” said Sheaks, who toasts his herbs so they are more aromatic.
Laura Fernández of Atenas led a team of cooks wearing red devil horns. But she insisted her Chili Willas chili is not hot as — well, you know.
Ms. Fernández’ secret chili weapon is the cubaces, a type of giant Costa Rican bean that she believes is more tasty than the more commonly used kidney bean.
“You need patience to be a good chili cook,” Ms. Fernández said. “The meat has to release its flavor.”
Cook Raymond Raza of San Ramón, makes a spicy chili he calls San Ramon Masala.
He said he believes people who prefer a hotter chili “normally grow up with it.”
Raza, who is of Indian origins, uses Indian spices as well as Worcestershire sauce. He then cooks it all in red wine to enhance the flavor.
Proceeds from the 9th Annual Atenas Chili Cook Off went to Hogar de Vida, an organization that helps at-risk children.