BUOYED BY THE SUCCESS of Burger Week in August—which finally answered the question, "How many hamburgers can Portlanders truly eat?"*—we thought we'd throw in with another all-star local food event. The first annual Chili Jamboree, thrown in cooperation with Mississippi Studios, Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and meat purveyor Nicky USA, will feature a day of live country music, an all-star chili cookoff, and a crippling river of bourbon. There's a lot on the line for the cooks: Not only will the champion receive a massive, custom-designed Chili Jamboree belt buckle, they'll also be whisked off to the Jack Daniel's distillery in Lynchburg for an all-expenses-paid VIP trip. You're going to see 10 of the city's top chefs putting forth their best effort to wow you, because not only do you get to sample all their chili (beer festival-style), you're going to vote for your favorite—and ticket packages start at only $20! Given the 10 competing restaurants and established portion sizes, that equals about 25 ounces of chili—though you can probably game the system to get more if you need it.
Ned's covering all the awesome music later on this page, so I'm here to brag about the culinary brain trust we put together. I figured first we'd go after some obvious and proven experts in the field of chili: Podnah's Pit and Smokehouse 21, both of whom quickly agreed to participate, and both of whom have a strong home-field advantage. Rodney Muirhead of Podnah's already serves a full-bodied, smoky Texas red in his restaurant, and BJ Smith of Smokehouse 21 makes some of the finest beans in town, larded with pork, fresh sausage, and what I suspect are the flavorful ends from his world-class briskets. But that's not necessarily what they'll be offering.
Branching out from the obvious, we put some shoe leather down to sign chefs not commonly thought of as chuck-wagon types. Justin Woodward, executive chef of fine dining destination Castagna, chewed on the idea for a bit before committing to "a very old-school chili con carne." The only thing molecular about it will be good, old-fashioned molecules, it seems.
Gregory Gourdet of Departure more or less immediately knew he'd be doing "an Asian bird meat stew." He later clarified his entry, which will be his version of the Indonesian one-pot dish Beef Rendang: "[Ours] is a very different angle with the seasonings of lemongrass, galangal, and coconut milk, but the concept remains the same, meat slowly cooked with toasted chiles and delicious seasonings. We will be using turkey to mix things up. I think it is an underused bird." Words like "confit" and "crispy skin" were laced throughout the rest of the description.
Johanna Ware of Smallwares plans a chili firmly in line with her "inauthentic Asian" concept: "ground pork, Sichuan peppercorns, fermented black beans, and scallions." Lardo's Rick Gencarelli wrote, "I haven't completely figured out my chili yet. I do know it will be loaded with smoked pork, roasted green chilies, pig ears, and a little bit of yuzu." That last bit has me thinking he's yanking my chain—but I kind of hope he isn't.
Some played it closer to the vest, with Ned Ludd's Jason French admitting only, "Ned Ludd is branching away from the traditional Texas-style chili and moving next door to Nuevo Mexico for inspiration." Radar's Jonathan Berube was also geographically vague: "Our official position is that we'll be going South of Southwest. That is all we are prepared to reveal at this juncture." Smith of Smokehouse 21 offered picturesque misdirection, writing, "My sous chef and I have devised a Southern-style chili with a theme park twist. Think cowboy boots and circus clowns." I know of no ingredients that are readily conjured by either concept—except perhaps dust and warm gin—which I suspect are incorrect, but Smith is a clever man.
Also participating, but unreachable at press time (or simply playing a masterfully secretive game), are: Tynan Gibson and Charlie Phillip of Tasty n Sons, and Alton Garcia of Broder. The previously mentioned Rodney Muirhead of Podnah's has maintained a careful radio silence, other than to briefly stir up his rivals in a good-natured (I think) group email.
Your ticket also includes dessert: The Honey Pot Bakery's Mary Sheridan will be handing out her "pie bites," two-bite miniature pies, in raspberry crumble, lemon meringue, and chocolate cream varieties.
The first annual Chili Jamboree will take place on Sunday, October 6, from 2 pm until participants have run through all possible permutations of hard liquor and human behavior. Winners will be announced by 6 pm. Please visit chilijampdx.com for tickets and further details—and visit soon, because the likelihood of a sell-out is high. CHRIS ONSTAD
* Answer: Not enough. Portlanders can simply not eat enough hamburgers to satisfy their curiosity about this item.
COUNTRY MUSIC AND CHILI have been perfect bedfellows ever since Hayseed McScruggins' immortal 1937 hit "I Got Meat in Mah Beans!" That's why the inaugural Chili Jamboree boasts five outstanding American acts from around the nation who make some of the best country music we've ever heard—no foolin'.
Just like chili, there are all kinds of country music—no two recipes are the same. So we didn't stick to the textbook definition of big hats and cowboy boots, or try to track down any Nashville-type rhinestone-glitz purveyors. We looked for musicians whose songs could pierce us to the bone, draw the tears out of our eyes and into our beers, and then kick out a barn-burnin' twanger capable of getting everyone's boots out on the floor.
LUCERO—For 15 years, these Memphis boys have made a spine-tingling amalgam of Southern music: lonesome country, fist-pumping rock, Big Star pop, and hardscrabble Dixie punk. Their most recent album Women & Work displays overt gospel and soul influences, while keeping alive the tradition of alt-country's magnificent songwriting. While their lyrics betray literary references, their live shows are beer-spattered things of legend—Lucero knows that a functioning soul needs some wild catharsis alongside those more subdued moments of contemplation.
STURGILL SIMPSON—Kentucky native Sturgill Simpson was an indisputable highlight of this year's Pickathon festival, and his debut album High Top Mountain is one of the best things to come out of Nashville in decades. Echoing outlaws of the past—Waylon, Willie, Johnny, Lefty—but able to cast his own shadow, Simpson has quickly earned a reputation as one of the saviors of country music. There's nothing backward-gazing or reactionary about his music; rather, Simpson keeps a keen eye out for the truth and doesn't waste a single instant on the bullcrap. "Life ain't fair and the world is mean," he sings, but with music like Simpson's, it's obvious that things can't be all bad.
DANIEL ROMANO—Proof that good country music pays no mind to international borders, Canadian jack-of-all-trades Daniel Romano makes some of the most authentic music around, when he's not designing posters for M. Ward, running his You've Changed Records label, or sitting in with bands like City and Colour and the Luyas. Romano opened for Caitlin Rose's recent Portland show, and the pair duetted on some songs that sent shivers through the room. Meanwhile, heartache has never sounded sweeter than on his terrific Come Cry with Me album. If ever a man was worthy of putting on Gram Parsons' Nudie suit, it is Romano.
SHELBY EARL—Okay, Seattle's Shelby Earl doesn't fit in the traditional mold of country music, but with a voice and a songwriting talent this huge, she can fit in just about anywhere. Her splendid new Swift Arrows album was recorded with Damien Jurado and took advantage of Seattle's Columbia City Theater's natural acoustics. It's a swooning, mercurial thing of beauty—Earl's voice and flair for heightened drama could make Bat for Lashes jealous.
MISSION SPOTLIGHT—Portland's own Mission Spotlight inaugurated the Mercury's very first Malt Ball, playing the 2012 festival's opening set, and we're very pleased to have them back for the first-ever Chili Jamboree. The local five-piece's Northwestern twang holds the alt-country flag high, and their careful, keening country sounds like pure Oregon: wide expanses of horizon, occasional darkening clouds, a self-sufficient DIY aesthetic, and a spirit of adventure.