The Shady Tavern Ice House's Fourth Annual Chili Cook-Off Competition

What is the best way to prepare for an all-you-can-eat meal? There are two main schools of thought: eat as much as possible in the days before, to maximize the capacity of your stomach; or, eat as little as possible in the days before, to maximize both the amount of space in your stomach and your level of hunger. Still others split the difference: gorge for days, then eat nothing at all on the day of the meal. The truly hard-core throw in a trip to the gym, to trick their bodies into consuming more calories.

It's not an idle question: Holiday meals and office potlucks are coming in droves, and people need to be ready. Yet the scientific community is sitting on the sidelines. C'mon, eggheads! If a Clemson professor can publish studies on the five-second rule and double dipping, surely a Texas university can shed some light on this timely issue. I'm talking to you, UH Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management.

Without the benefit of peer-reviewed inquiry, this past Saturday people followed their instincts - and the scent of 16 pots of slow-simmered chili - to the Shady Tavern Ice House's Fourth Annual Chili Cook-Off Competition. The sun was shining, fall was in the air, college football was on the tube, and as people milled happily about the back forty and consumed mass quantities, it felt for all the world like a kick-back tailgater where no one cared if they ever went into the game. It's hard to imagine a nicer way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

The setup was simple: pay a fee, eat until you can't eat any more, and the best chili (as voted on by three judges, including me) takes the gate proceeds. Ashley Whitworth Beecher, competition organizer and daughter of Shady Tavern owner Dennis Whitworth, explained that the cook-off was simply a fun neighborhood event, with the emphasis on fun. Accordingly, the chili could contain anything and everything.

This didn't stop some competitors from grousing about their neighbors' use of bacon, venison, fresh peppers, or - the horror! - beans. With a healthy mix of first-timers and chili cook-off veterans, a wide range of styles and attitudes prevailed. Most were pleased to describe their ingredients and cooking process, but one guy acted like he was guarding the Coca-Cola formula. "What's in the chili?" I asked. "Chili." I thought he hadn't heard me properly, so I tried again. "What's in the chili?" "Chili. Taste it. And don't gulp it down like you did with that other one." O-kaaaaay.

In the end, the defending champion Holy Cowboys Chili Team emerged triumphant with their Divine Inspiration chili, a well-rounded, perfectly textured beef chili featuring a dose of St. Arnold's Divine Reserve #7 (hence the name) and a dollop of lime-infused sour cream. (Last year's champions, Come and Take It, did not compete in this year's contest.) The team, former colleagues at SMT software, have been competing for three years under the guiding hand of team captain Ken Cooley. But trouble looms, as their beer stockpile is being rapidly depleted.

Second place went to the peppery, soulful chili from the Chili Dogs, first-time competitors representing the Yale Animal Clinic, led by team captain Jessica Galvan and her mother Theresa. Many other chilis were noteworthy, and on another day probably would have won prizes. Speaking as one of the judges, I don't think I'm giving away state secrets by saying that the judging, although honest, was not exactly scientific.

The Houston Dairymaids kept it real with a Farmers' Market chili solely containing ingredients purchased at local farmers' markets, including Mangalitsa pork from Revival Meats, St. Arnold's Christmas Ale, and queso blanco from the Mozzarella Company. Liberty Station Bar came up big with both a beef chili and a venison chili and a basket of cornbread on the side, but made the questionable decision to mix the chilis together as their competition entry. Justin Renfrew-Hill, the garrulous captain of the One Man and a Monkey team, served up a heady brew redolent with four types of fresh peppers. But perhaps the spirit of the competition was best exemplified by the indiscreetly named Camel Towing, which captain Matt Webb identified as a bunch of friends who were going to attend the cook-off anyway and decided they might as well compete.

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