The Yuba Pass Chili Cookoff takes place this coming Saturday, the 6th, at the Yuba pass snow park. It is the social event of the season in Sierra County, attended by the halt, the lame, the mad, and even some of the county’s less august residents.
The first Chili Cookoff was held by members of the Donner Party while travelling over the Yuba Pass in 1849. It started to snow, and taking no chances, they fell upon one of their number, a pale, quakey man named Chilly. Thus began the tradition.
The Cookoff was continued by the small group of purists until at last there were just two skinny, hungry old men, then just one. He didn’t bother to show up the next year.
From last year's Chili Cook Off: Collusion of the press
The tradition was revived by culinary historian Don Russell of The Mountain Messenger Newspaper. At first, the group cooked over campfires, like the early celebrants, but re-occurring complaints from Cal Trans and a catastrophic asphalt fire forced the group to use more modern cooking appliances. As a historic note, the cook who started the asphalt fire stood her ground and stuck to her pot, most likely because of the melted tar. The chili was pulled from the roiling black smoke and pronounced the winner. Many cooks since have used a variety boiling and burning petroleum products trying to recreate that special taste; none have succeeded but they are dearly missed.
The rules of the Chili Cook Off were taken directly from the local game called "B’n’B" or "bandanas and bowie knives": there are no rules.
Let’s expand on the idea of no rules: anything goes.
From the 2009 Cook Off:
This means that just about any kind of chili will go, including, a few years back, Paco’s Sensemilla Chili Verde, a chili made with tomatoes, peppers and sensemilla imported from the highlands of the Yucatan by Paco O’Doud, since gone missing. The chili was pungent and rich, according to those few who remember it. While Paco’s chili is legendary, it didn’t win that year, indeed, no winner was announced that day. It was four days later that a winner was decided, based on a reconstruction of the day found on T-shirts, aprons, table tops and a spot on the ground near the restrooms.
The "no rules" rule means a variety of meats, meat by products, and meat like substances appear, and is the reason local folks keep their pets indoors starting about Monday. That, and the Cook Off’s history, also explains why occasionally the sheriff or FBI will appear to probe big dank pots of chili for dentures.
Not that every contestant has to enter chili in the Cook Off, it just has to be called chili. Ever the pioneer in expanding the horizons of chili, Don Russell entered a banana cream pie as chili. No one complained, if they had, it might have meant a game of B’n’Bs.
The judges for the Cook Off are hand-picked by the likely winners. Traditionally during a judicial election year, the judge candidates are tapped to judge the chili, so that in the words of Don Russell, "you can see who the honest judge is, that is, the judge who’ll stay bought." Bribing is considered mandatory; those who refuse to bribe the judges are called "losers," and suffer scorn and occasionally, a beating.
Experienced attendees have advice for first timers. Get all your shots, spend a few months gradually getting your body used to salmonella, notify next of kin, fill a Pez dispenser with Omeprazole, and drink a pint of olive oil before you get out of your car. As long as those simple precautions are followed, your day at the Yuba Pass Chili Cook Off can be as safe as a day spent bungee jumping or baiting young black ex-cons.
See you there!
Editor’s Note: The terrible ordeal of the Donner Party should not be the fodder for irony or humor, and yet, they often are. Such is the blessing and curse of free speech.