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Red Hot Chili Cookoff -- Frank Casimiro © -- All rights reserved 1999
It was a cool and cloudy October morning in Toronto when we ventured out the 401 toward the Kitchener-Waterloo area. A meeting had been loosely planned for some time now. We were to meet for the first time in person the one we had come to know as "Feren". Having met her a year earlier in a chat room on the internet and becoming friends, today would be the day of our “face-to-face” meeting.
The drive was a pleasant one as we took in the all the sights we had never seen before. Following the directions given to us, we found our way to Ferens apartment where we were greeted by open arms. After the introductions (and a much needed pit stop, whew!!) we decided we would go down to the farmers market and roam around for a bit. Coincidentally the weekend we chose to meet happened to also be the last weekend of the annual October Fest in the area. The market was packed wall to wall with people and we found it hard to communicate freely on this, our first encounter. A decision was made to get away from the crowd and visit the artsy shops in nearby St. Jacobs. As we neared the shops, we realized that all the others that also couldn't get into the farmers market had the same idea as we did. Not being able to find a parking spot, Feren suggested we just go and sit at a local hang out and talk over brunch.
“ETHELS” I still remember
today the big bold diagonal “EAT MEXICAN” sign
painted on the side of the building. What do these
“Canuks” know about preparing Mexican food, anyway?
We stepped inside. Finally, some peace and quiet to
be able to talk over this new found friendship.
The waitress made her rounds and gave us the menus. As I searched the menu, I became tickled as to what the chef had envisioned to be Mexican food. Frijoles even had a footnote to explain to the patrons they were about to be served beans. Feren ordered a traditional breakfast, (she's obviously been here before and stayed away from the south-of-the-border fare) Redd, my wife ordered a salad and as for me, well, I had to be the one to experiment with “Canadian Mexican” food. I ordered the tortilla soup. When I did so, the waitress looked at me and asked if I was sure I wanted what I had ordered. She stated it was a rather spicy dish, spicier than I might be able to handle. I told her that the tortilla soup would be fine. She once again tried to discourage me, telling me that the soup even had jalapenos in it. I quietly reached for my wallet, opened it and pulled out my driver's license, showing her I was from Texas. I was ready for the hottest tortilla soup Canada had to offer. She walked away to fulfill our order.
As we sat around talking and waiting for our food, we noticed that the place was beginning to fill with people carrying crock-pots and other cooking utensils. Surely they didn't partake in the Bennihana theme where they prepare your meal at the table. I turned to a girl setting up her crock-pot behind us and asked her what was going on. She told me I was in luck, for today was the day of the Red Hot Chili Cook-off in Canada. Now this I had to see, a chili cook-off in Canada.
About that time the waitress returned with our meal. I was so busy watching the contestants set up their tables that I failed to immediately look down at my lunch. The girl I had asked what was going on was setting up her table in precise detail. I watched as she opened up a jar of pickled jalapenos and laid them in a line one by one on a small dish on her table. One would think she was handling live bugs. She was so very cautious not to get any of the juice on her hands for the fear it might burn or blister her skin. If only I had a pair of neoprene gloves to let her use. (The gloves we use to handle brisket on the pit at a Texas Bar-B-Que.)
I now focused my attention to my lunch. I was ready to savor the spicy soup I had ordered. As I looked down into the clear thin watery broth I noticed a few pieces of chicken, some diced onions, tomatos and a few jalapenos. What was this? Not a single tortilla chip was to be found floating in my bowl. And where were the beans, corn and the zucchini? Absent also were the anchoe peppers, cilantro, and the mushrooms. There wasn't even a single shred of cheese to be found. Well, I was determined to make the best of it, so I lowered my spoon into the bowl to fish out a piece of chicken and a jalapeno or two. What these ole 'buds tasted next sent signals to my brain urging me to go find the nearest hospital. No not to check in because I was becoming ill, but to go find the cafeteria within the hospital. The food there would surely be spicier than this soup she had warned me of. Seems my southern 'buds are a bit more adapted to a spicier cuisine. I just stirred it around a bit and ate it quietly, glad I had not ordered the enchilada dinner.
We finished our lunch as we chatted, becoming better acquainted in person. It was now time to pay the check and go our separate ways. Before we stood up to leave, we noticed one table being set up with balloons and stuffed animals holding small signs. There was even a naked Barbie doll atop it. I told Feren and Redd that I couldn't leave without taking a picture of the table setup. They said not to bother thinking it might not be a good idea asking a stranger to be photographed. But I wasn't coming all this way from Texas to Canada to miss this curious photo opportunity. I stood up, walked over to the two women at the table and politely asked their permission to photograph the table. They agreed to my request and I let my shutter fly. After taking a few pictures I got up the nerve to ask them just what all the decorations on the table represented. I told them I was from Texas and never had I seen a Chili Cook-Off like this before. One introduced herself as Irene and her friend as Rhonda. She told me that there was a theme to her table display. It represented her vegetarian lifestyle and it was a fun protest against the use of meat in chili. Some of the assorted stuffed animals were protesters and the others were anti protesters. She also told me she was the editor of a local vegan publication called Whole Life Magazine. By this time a small crowd gathered as I told her that in Texas we also had themes at our chili cook-offs, to cook chili and drink beer. This opened up the door to a lot more fun conversation, laughs, and sore faces from smiling so much. It also opened the door to a friendship I share with Irene to this day, and a continuing friendship with Feren.
Irene published the Red Hot Chili Cook-Off story in the next issue of her magazine and included a bit of our meeting from that day. I still need to send “ETHELS” my real homemade Tortilla soup recipe. And Irene, before you get out the protesters on my recipe, just omit the chicken.