Monday, August 20, 2012

When Victory Tastes Like Wendy’s

Although humans have boasted about their ability to cook since man first learned to barbeque a brontosaurus, the “foodie” phenomenon that has erupted in the last few years has taken culinary narcissism to a completely new and annoying level. Few things make a meal worse than getting full on the food of a foodie as they meticulously fill you in with the details of their newest delectable delight.

On the other hand, nothing is better than beating the foodies at their own game. Especially with food their pretentious palates would never consider acceptable.

For several years, I worked with a group who took great pride in their culinary abilities. They brought in desserts, breakfasts, and even the occasional stew. They put a lot of time and effort into their food and everyone knew it. While it wasn't a competition, they had an amicable admiration of talent and tried to top each other with every creation.

On the first Friday of every May, these foodie friendships were put to the side for my company’s annual Cinco de Mayo Chili Cook-Off. With a small but significant prize and year-long bragging rights on the line, it was showtime for those who thought they could command a kitchen.

In my third year in the workplace, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and enter the chili cook-off. I wasn't much of a cook, but I had recently purchased a crockpot and was excited to try my hand at my first chili.

In mid-April, the announcement went out for chili cook-off contestants. Besides all the usual suspects, the cook-off also brought out several people who, like the culinary version of Christmas Catholics, only got involved for the big annual event. And then there was me.

Throughout the next few weeks, the upcoming cook-off was the talk of the office. Many of the prospective participants discussed strategies, ingredients, and how they thought they were going to do. Since my name was new to the list, a few even asked me what how my preparations were going. As their enthusiasm grew however, mine waned. Their increasing chatter made me dread the contest. It was all they talked about. I quickly regretted entering the contest. I wasn’t a cook, and if it meant being like them, I didn’t want to be. Despite my negativity, however, I still needed to submit an entry or face horrible workplace embarrassment.

At 10 pm the night before the chili cook-off, while all the other chilis in all the other kitchens of all the other workers were probably simmering in anticipation of the big day, I did what any enterprising person who had lost interest in a chili cook-off would do: I visited my local Wendy's and bought eight 99-cent chilis.

To my surprise, my order took only a few minutes. I wondered how long the chili I purchased had been simmering in the restaurant. Was it there since dinner or did they make a new pot for the late-night crowd?

Regardless, I had my chili. There was no rule that says I had to eat my own submission.

I drove back to my apartment and immediately poured each container of chili into my crock pot, added an unhealthy serving of hot sauce, and set the crock pot on “simmer”.

The next morning, I unplugged my submission, taped the lid to the crock pot, and drove to work. Seeing me with my concoction, several curious co-workers asked the ingredients.

“Something I threw together,” I replied.

That answer thankfully garnered a few laughs, in part I believe because of my rookie naivety. They didn’t consider me a threat, and I didn’t care. To be honest, besides the hot sauce, I really had no idea what was in Wendy’s chili.

Hours before the cook-off, I gave my creation a creative moniker that could tease but still hide its origin: “South of the Border Meets D.T.’s Daughter”. The name openly advertised the hot sauce I used (“S.O.B.: Sauces of the Border”) while slyly hinting the Wendy’s connection (“Dave Thomas = D.T.”). As lunch time approached, I wondered if the name was too revealing.

Ten minutes before noon, the chefs were told to bring their chilis to the outside picnic area. Carefully I carried my creation to the tables, placed the pot next to the other submissions, and taped on the name placard.

At noon, my co-workers poured out of the building, eager to taste the wide array of chilis. Before they could dig in however, a group of judges, including the head of my department, made themselves small bowls of each submission. Once the judges had their samples, the rush was on.

I personally sampled a few of my competitors’ chilis. They were quite good. With each spoonful, I could taste the care and quality of their work. Some chilis were full of flavor, others heavy on heat.

As the majority finished their lunch, the department head stood before the crowd.

“We would like to announce the winners of this year’s contest,” he exclaimed.

He then announced the third place runner-up, a newcomer. Everyone cheered, as someone had broken in the elite circle of chefs. Second place went the regular who had won the year before. Good for them, I thought as I kept eating.

“And the winner of the Chili Cook-Off is ‘South of the Border Meets D.T.’s Daughter’.”

I nearly spit out my mouthful of chili.

While my co-workers clapped, I got out of my seat and accepted my prize – a year membership to the local Costco. As I walked to the front, I was sure someone was going to out me, call me a fraud, and make me give up the gig. I half-contemplated outing myself, admitting my ruse, and handing the prize to the runner-up. That would have be the moral thing to do. But there was no rule against commercial entries and I submitted a pot of chili same as the next guy, even if I didn’t slave over a hot stove to create it.

After the contest, I returned to my office, carrying a nearly empty crock pot, and growing increasingly smug with victory.

I thought about giving the Costco membership to the local Wendy’s, as they played as big a part in my upset as I did. But I didn’t.

Like victory over the annoying foodies, it was mine. All mine.

(Picture from World's Recipe List)