Someone in the background cried out the real secret was "pretty women."
Johnson said the prison joins in the cook-off to be a part of the community, the reward of public participation and for the fun of it. She said the $1,000 first prize will be given to a local charity.
Mel Lamoreaux, a sales and service manager at American Linen, said Miner Mel's won the people's choice because they had the best chili, the best group of workers, they worked the crowd well and had a good time. They were awarded $250, and he said it's unknown how the money will be spent.
Hundreds of people were in attendance Saturday morning at Cattle Call Arena; as some left, others arrived.
Brawley resident Tina Reyes was there with her son, Connor Pankratz, 6. Connor, who was media shy, agreed with his mother that the one chili he had so-far sampled was hot.
Reyes said they go to the cook-off every year.
Another youngster, Imperial resident Taylor Caldwell, 14, said he was there for the chili. When interviewed he had already tried about six, and said Miner Mel's was the best.
"It tasted better than all the other ones," Taylor said.
Participants differed on what made their chili special.
Last year's first-place winner was the Imperial Irrigation District's High Voltage Chili.
Its cook, Phil Falkenstein, IID power department supervisor of public programs, said the key to success is hard work in preparing the ingredients, fresh ingredients, quality beef and "old grandpa Falkenstein's recipe" from the days of cattle ranching in Texas — a recipe that has been handed down from generation to generation.
Falkenstein said everybody was having a good time, and that reasons to participate are to market the IID's public benefit program and support the community. He said last year's winnings were contributed to the United Way.
A couple booths down was U.S. Navy retired chief personnelman Frank Pascua's Chief's Chili. He said the secret to great chili is fresh ingredients, a lot of good help and a time-honored recipe. The original recipe was created by Pascua's wife about 20 years ago at the officers' club at Naval Air Facility El Centro.
"I stole it and improved on it," Pascua said, adding that the recipe gets "tweaked" every year, and that while the list of ingredients is the same, the amount of each is according to taste. It includes the right blend of peppers, without too much of any of them.
Pascua said participating in the cook-off is a way to keep the Chief Petty Officers Association involved in community activities and to show people that although chief petty officers are a tough bunch of sailors who run the Navy, they're good people too.
The best chili in this reporter's opinion was that being served up by the Chili Peckers, sponsored by The Drifters Saloon in Imperial.
"It was a spur-of-the-moment recipe," said Chili Pecker cook Chuck Gentry, adding that everybody had their own ingredient to add. "It was a team effort."
Had the Chili Peckers won, the consensus was the money would be spent on partying.
Meanwhile, Natalie Greenwood-Schmidt, cook-off chairwoman, said the winners are selected according to written criteria, and the taste-testing is done without the judges knowing whose chili they are sampling.
Criteria includes good flavor and chili pepper taste, not too hot nor too mild; texture of the meat, not too tough nor too mushy; consistency, not to thick nor too thin; the blend of spices and how well they permeate the meat; aroma, a personal preference and color, though not a material factor in determining the winner.
The bottom line?
"Try thinking, ‘If I am to have only one chili for the rest of my life, which container on this table would I choose,' " the guidelines say.
This year there were nine judges, and Greenwood-Schmidt said she appreciates that the judges donate their time to participate. She also thanked the cook-off's sponsors: First American Title, Desert Mist Farms, Ocean Mist Farms, Debbie's Western Wear, Graffik Graffiti, Del Norte Chevrolet, Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Imperial Valley, Alford Distributing, Rutter Media, Q-96 and KROP.
She also praised RDO Equipment Co. for lending "gators" to move equipment and booths, and Hendrix Communications for lending radios.
"Many thanks to all my sponsors," Greenwood-Schmidt said.
Staff Writer Rudy Yniguez can be reached at 337-3440.