CLAYTON -- Some like it hot -- no beans. Some like it with just a bit of a bite and lots of beans. And some like to mix it up with beans, sausage, turkey, peppers, onions, tomatoes ... well, there are as many variations as there are cooks.
Eighteen chili purists, aficionados, amateurs and experts cooked up pots of their favorite recipe and took them to the Clayton Club Saloon on Sunday for the historic cowboy bar's 13th annual Chili Cook-off.
"Contestants make it the day before," said Clayton Club co-owner Steve Barton.
There are no rules saying the chili has to be Texas-style -- no beans; or Southwest-style -- with beans, but Barton says, "No canned chili is allowed. They're on the honor system."
Contestant and second-place winner R. Scott Clarenbach's competition chili has beans.
"I usually start my chili two days before," said the repeat participant.
But this year, business took him out of town, so the chore of preparing the vegetables that include seven kinds of peppers, onions, tomatoes, beef and then adding the three varieties of beans, was left to his girlfriend, Connie Ledbetter.
"Preparation was 100 percent her," he said.
Although Clarenbach learned to cook at his Louisiana born-and-bred grandmother's side, he says, "This chili doesn't come from Louisiana. It's born and bred in California."
The chili is cooked, then removed from the heat to rest. Spices are added and the chili reheated before being removed from the heat to rest again. The resting time allows all the flavors to meld, says Clarenbach. To change things up from last year, he added hot links to his beef starter.
His mother, Pat Clarenbach, also joined this year's competition.
Judging was close. Veteran Clayton Club chili competition judge Councilman Howard Geller announced a tie in placement of top finishers. "We have two places and we have three people," he announced. "We're going back to retaste."
Geller joined fellow judges Councilman Jim Diaz and Clayton Pioneer publisher Rob Steiner hovering over pots, tasting and marking their score sheets.
Judges score each category on a scale of one to five, with the scores added to arrive at a winner. Once the winner is announced, visitors can also taste entries.
After the final decisions, winners received ribbons, and a monetary purse of $300 for first place; $200 for second place; and $100 for third. Best of all, they got bragging rights.
Although it is all in fun, winning is important. Judges rank contestants so any good-natured side bets can be settled.
When Orcutt's chili was named the winner, the Clayton Club bartender looked shocked. This was her third year entering the contest, and all who know her said she didn't expect to win. Her chili was made with turkey and chicken sausage.
"I don't see how you can win with turkey and chicken sausage," said third-place finisher Bob Coonradt of Concord, a former winner and caterer by profession who has been cooking chili for 50 years. "I should have won," says the Texas-style chili cook, laughing.
"There was a lot of good chili there," says fellow Texas-style competitor Michael Heinze of Concord.
"Most people don't know where chili came from, where it was originally made or anything about it," said Coonradt.
Even historians are inconsistent in its origins, preferring legends and stories passed along. But connoisseurs and judges know what they like, and each year those entering the Clayton Club Chili Cook-off shake up their recipes, hoping to win.
Win or lose, the general consensus is it's a good, fun time to gather with friends, eat chili and enjoy a favorite drink. This year's contest was no exception.
First place: Naomi and Joe Orcutt of Bay Point
Second place: R. Scott Clarenbach of Concord
Third place: Bob Coonradt of Concord