I glanced over at Bronco Barnes. Bronco is a veteran chili judge and one I was counting on to assist some of the newer judges. But he appeared to be struggling with some of the early entries. I think it might have been the one that some of the other judges had called out “Road kill!’’ although it wasn’t easy to tell in the dark. That entry had been handed out just after another one that appeared to be tomato soup with little chocolate drops floating in it.
Things were not going well. Organizers of the event known as “Smoke on the River’’ at Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa on Saturday evening thought it would be a good idea to put the judges up on a perch so the several thousand spectators in the park could witness the dozen judges expertly analyzing the blends of spices, peppers and other ingredients in the 24th Steve Otto Chili Cook-Off. Usually the judges prefer doing their sampling in some private room away from the cooks and spectators. That has certain advantages.
For one, you might get a sample, put your plastic spoon into it, and come back with only half a spoon. That happened a few years ago and most of the judges, for personal reasons, decided not to try the stuff.
Then there was that food fight in the chambers of the Tampa Museum of Art. Even though none of the artwork was actually damaged, we have not been asked back.
Here, being exposed to the crowd, the judges actually had to sample all of the entries.
Fortunately, the organizers this year decided to hold the judging after dark, so nobody could actually see what was going on and the judges were holding their cell phones over each entry, using the light to check for appearance and to ensure that everything in the cup was dead. At the far end of the table Sandsnake Paterno, who was used to seeing things wiggling in some of his contests back in Arizona, was calling for a knife.
Suddenly I looked over at Bronco and noticed a change had come over his face. At first I was afraid he had passed out but he slowly opened one eye. “I have found inner peace,’’ he said. “I am in heaven.’’
Around the table were similar sighs as the judges dipped into what would later be identified as the winning team ....The Krewe of Zingaro.
This was the fourth win for the Krewe, an amazing statistic considering it was the favorite of all 12 judges this time, with several judging for the first time. If I ever join a Gasparilla krewe it’s going to be that one just to get their chili.
I’d give you the recipe, and will probably post it on Facebook, but this year each team had to make 10 gallons of the stuff, enough to feed your entire neighborhood. Their list of ingredients begins with “30 pounds sirloin tip roast, cut into quarter inch cubes,’’ not the sort of thing for a quick meal.
The big surprise was the “Ulele’s Maiden Voyage’’ team, which finished third, just behind “Power Made.’’
Ulele is the new restaurant being constructed on the equally new Water Works Park at the north end of the Riverwalk by the Columbia Restaurant Group.
They captured the “Peoples Choice’’ award with their concoction made on giant Paella pans.
Anyhow, we all survived and special congratulations to the “Cancer Bites’’ team for winning the team spirit award and for their work all year supporting cancer victims.