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Serious Entertaining: How to Throw a Chili and Cornbread Cook-off

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Alt-Lopez]

This is the fourth year I will host a chili and cornbread cook-off. It's become a true community event and this year, we'll have more tasters, judgers and enthusiasts than in all the previous years combined! It's a low-cost, high-involvement party, where the guests are the judges and everyone leaves with a full belly and a sense of accomplishment. Preparation falls under two categories:

1. Get the message out. Email, flyers hung at the park, and Facebook.

2. Get supplies ready.
Supplies for our chili and cornbread cookoff included but were not limited to:

Judges, guests and tasters can all be the same people

Most preparation happens on the day of the event. Hosts should plan to arrive an hour early to set up the tables with tablecloths and utensils.

Since participants will need to label their chili, set up a separate table to that end with markers and labels. Each chili contestant then sets a small cup next to their dish. Each taster is allowed one red bean to vote for the best chili and one white bean to vote for the best cornbread.

Use dried beans in small cups for voting.

The chili and cornbread with the most beans wins bragging rights for the year.

Top 10 Chili Cookoff-Throwing Tips

1. If working with more than ten dishes or more than ten judges, use beans and small cups for voting. Voting means you put your bean in the cup closest to the chili or corn-bread that is your favorite.

2. Include physical awards for at least the first and second places. Just because we're grownups doesn't mean we don't like to receive trophies! I make ours from kitchen items and construction paper.

Annie wins first place in the second annual chili cook off.

3. Keep an eye on the voting process. Sometimes friends can't resist the temptation to fudge the results.

Participants label their chili.4. Make sure attendees have time, resources and space to label and name their chili. Judges don't like to taste chili if they don't know what flavors to anticipate.

5. If you're going to have multiple slow cookers, double check the number of electrical outlets and access to these outlets.

6. Make sure there's plenty of elbow room between chili entries on the table. A chili cookoff doesn't follow normal buffet rules because tasters return back repeatedly.

Chili tasters

7. The tasting portion of your event should have a reasonable end time. Crusty, burned-on slow cookers do not make for winning chili. After the winners are announced, most people will want to go back in for a taste of the winning chili.

8. Set all chili sides (like chopped green onions, grated cheese and sour cream) on their own table. This way, adding extras to individual chili bowls doesn't slow down the tasting process. (If judges won't eat chili without a sour cream dollop, it's important to make sure judges can easily access that sour cream dollop.)

9. Have a designated emcee. Microphones or big voices help command attention of all the excited attendees.

10. HAVE FUN! Being a good host is all about having just as much fun as your guests.

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