Champion Chili

Petaluma Chili Cook-Off inspires succulent simmering


“No man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her,” says Harry Burns in When Harry Met Sally. What he means is an easygoing, casual relationship can never exist because of pure, primal instinct for instant gratification. But a good bowl of chili will tell otherwise.

Slow-cooked with layers of flavor, each bite can take minutes to develop. It builds a relationship, and rewards taking time to get acquainted. It’s not just for Frito boats and hot dogs; chili can be a serious foodie obsession.That’s what brought my chili team together in the first place. We’ve won awards in the Great Petaluma Chili Cook-Off each of our two years in competition with both meat and vegetarian entries. “Mount Chilimanjaro” and “Chili Vanilli” were themed dishes, including goat and vanilla, respectively.

This time, the secret ingredient is a Reuben. With this year’s entry, “When Chili Met Sally,” we drew inspiration from the scene when Sally Albright proves to Harry he couldn’t tell if a woman was faking an orgasm. The flavors mimic that of a pastrami Reuben from Katz Deli in New York, where the scene was filmed. Extensive research was performed to ensure authenticity, including a trip to Katz Deli itself and comparisons with Mac’s Kosher Deli in downtown Santa Rosa.

The sandwiches at Katz Deli are huge—over one pound of fresh, hand-sliced pastrami on ridiculously fresh rye bread with sauerkraut and Swiss. They’re also $15 and come with pickle spears (sour or half-sour).

Shooting for this mark, our chili includes flavors of the Rueben, like rye, caraway, fenugreek, ajowan, mustard seeds and dill seeds, all toasted to make their flavors pop. Braised brisket and slow-simmered pastrami are included, some cut into chunks and some shredded. We use kosher salt to ensure purity (and, you know, to make sure it’s kosher) and fresh ground pepper from a mortar and pestle to ensure freshness (and, you know, to make sure our wrists are Jello for a week).

As with all real chili, no beans are included. And the piece de resistance? The chili pepper we use is most unusual to traditional chili but induces a good sweat without tainting the flavor. (I’m sworn to secrecy on its identity.)

Though it’s not a professional competition—there is no real prize—contestants take the Petaluma Cook-Off very seriously. During our test sessions, intense focus and sampling help create the chili’s personality. Ingredients and comments are written down to ensure continuity. Photographic records are kept, though the evidence remains in a safety deposit box in the Nevada desert.

In When Harry Met Sally, Harry ultimately proves himself wrong by falling in love with Sally, his best friend. It takes time to realize this love; one could say it’s slow-cooked to perfection. Just like a good pot of chili.

The 14th Annual Great Petaluma Chili Cook-Off, Salsa and Beer Tasting takes place Saturday, May 7, in Herzog Hall at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds. 175 Fairgrounds Drive, Petaluma. 1pm-5pm. $10-$25. 707.763.8920.

Sonoma County Library