Monday, September 07, 2015

Chili and writing projects

Today there was no coffee. I’m sick. (Again.)

I’ve declared this week to be writing week in our house. My parents are on vacation, so the house is very quiet, making this an ideal time to work. And there’s not much on the schedule, and I’m recovering from a cold, which makes me not want to budge very far from “sitting in a comfortable chair wrapped in a quilt with a cup of herbal tea within reach.” Thankfully, my laptop is also nearby, so I’ll try to write something.

 I have lots of projects—liner notes for a CD, blog posts, bits for talks we’re giving various places this fall, and a sermon. I will perhaps post some other things that I write this week, but right now I feel like writing about recent happenings around home. Specifically, last Sunday, we had our annual neighborhood chili cook-off! (Our neighborhood is called Easter Acres, by the way.)

On August 19, less than two weeks before the big day, we residents of Easter Acres crammed around the table on my parents’ deck. Ostensibly, we were meeting to make plans for the annual chili cook-off, but there was little indication of any sort of “meeting” to be found within the lively conversation, loud laughter, and guests making multiple trips to the kitchen to refill their plates with salmon, steak, bread, and salad.

Over peach cobbler and ice cream, the conversation finally turned to the business at hand. This year would be the 27th chili cook-off, so making plans consisted of going through a well-organized to-do list and finding helpers for each task. I could see my dad inching backward from the table, hoping to avoid being asked to do too much. After some initial “Why do we do this every year? It’s too much work!” and other such complaints, each person cheerfully volunteered to take on a number of tasks. The one task remaining was managing the trash; my brother, who was not present, somehow found his name down for that task.

On August 28, two days before the chili cook-off, I came home from my tea-ceremony lesson (wearing a kimono) to find every surface on the kitchen counter covered with chili ingredients, and my parents both hard at work on their chilis. What, already? I thought to myself. After a quick trip to the store to get the few ingredients that weren’t available fresh from the garden, I started to prepare ingredients for my chili, but it was already dinner time. After dinner, I looked at the recipe again and discovered that the whole chicken I would shred and put in my chili needed to roast for three and a half hours. I groaned. This would be a late night.

On August 29, the day before the chili cook-off (and my dad’s birthday), I could hear the telltale sounds of moving furniture. As I went downstairs for breakfast, I found a large, white armchair halfway down on the landing. “It’s so no one spills chili on it,” my mom explained. All the downstairs furniture had been rearranged to accommodate the chili cook-off crowd, since the forecast called for rain. Keith headed off to our church to borrow some tables while I began to pull roasted chicken meat off the bones to prepare the shredded chicken and soup stock for my chili. Soon a pot of stock and a pot of cranberry beans simmered on the stove while I cut up onions, peppers, tomatillos and herbs. Mom moved anything unnecessary out of the kitchen; Dad, fighting a cold, avoided all unnecessary movements. I left a birthday card on my dad’s computer while he was napping, with a promise to make him a cake when all this craziness was finished.

On August 30, the day of the chili cook-off, we made a pact. After church, we were heading straight home: no talking to anyone, straight out the door. However: Keith ran off to get a snack (he hadn’t had breakfast); Mom and I followed him and started up a conversation with a friend. Meanwhile, Keith issued a last minute invitation to a person he had met recently. Then Mom realized: “We have to go! I still need to season my chili!” We hurried out the back door towards our car.

At home, Dad, who had stayed behind because of his cold, was heating up our chilis on the stove. I tasted my chili: too mild. I added salt and a tiny bit of the insanely hot chili powder my brother brought home from Mexico. I tasted again: still too mild. And something is missing. I added a drizzle of honey, some cooking wine, and more of my brother’s chili powder. Still too mild. I sprinkled the chili powder more liberally over the surface. By this time, our guests had started to arrive, so I cleaned up the kitchen while directing guests where to put their potluck contributions.

To my surprise, only three others brought hot chilis, while the rest brought mild chilis—about 12 pots. This year, I’ll win, I thought as I dished my chili up into little plastic cups for judging. What was there not to like? Shredded roast chicken and beautiful cranberry beans against a backdrop of sweet-sour tomatillos, peppers, and onions. The pear tree in the garden provided us with an abundance of fruit this year; I chopped one up and added it for sweetness. After all, you need something interesting to distinguish your chili from all the others. My friends, Hiromi and Chris made a chili with kabocha, shiitake, and gobo. I think that was the most interesting one.

Preparing sample cups for the judges
Hot chilis
Mild chilis
After the judges picked up their sample cups, I picked up a bowl and hovered around the chili table, sampling a bit of each chili and talking with guests about their impressions. As the results from the mild category were announced, I quickly snatched a mouthful of each of the winning chilis before they were devoured. Then we moved on to the hot category. Maybe this would be my year? There were only four hot chilis, after all. “Tied for third place: #13 and #27.” So, Dad and I tied for last place. (I thought it was good…)

Judging in progress
When the judging was over and most everyone had finished eating, in a weird cross-cultural moment, I got out my shamisen at the request of some of the guests, and played “Nasu to kabocha” (eggplant and kabocha squash) in honor of Hiromi and Chris’ unusual chili.

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