Cecelia Gonzales, our local horticulturist, has worked in grounds at Colorado College since August 1995. From the plants decorating the sidewalks to the perennial gardens beautifully constructed around campus, Cecelia has brought artistry and vivacity to campus for the past 23 years. She is originally from Trinidad, which sits on the border of Colorado and New Mexico, “right on the southern tip.” I sat across from Cecelia in a booth in Wooglins on a snowy Thursday morning and asked her to share her story of chili. Not only did she inaugurate the annual chili cook-off at CC, but she also wins it every single year, with her green chili recipe. As Cecelia ate a big breakfast, she talked about the flavors she could taste: the egg, the sweetness of the syrup; flavors she had lost the ability to distinguish while she underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer. We spent the morning talking about Cecelia’s process of making green chili, and how spice was the flavor she never lost the taste of.
Becca Stine: So, tell me about the annual chili cook-off.
Cecelia Gonzales: It’s an annual Grounds chili cook-off. I believe we started in ’96 or ’97, and it’s been going ever since. We started having a chili cook-off right before Christmas break, and then it interfered with the president's party, and the facilities party, so we decided to move it up to the New Year, which would give us something to kind of look forward to. We’d have something to come back to in January.
We usually have a green chili, a red chili, and an “other.” The other could be a vegetarian, or a white chili, or what have you.
And everyone has to make one of each?
Whatever they want, they can make one or the other. I’m a green chili champion.
Are there separate awards for each kind of chili?
Yeah, what we normally do is get gift certificates to give out to the winners. It was more of a trying to get everybody together. We always had plenty of beer, and we always got fresh tortillas from La Casita to go with it.
Where did you learn how to make chili?
I learned from my mother when I was little, and over the years I just have kind of added my own twist to it. My green chili is more of a stew, it’s real meaty. So I put a lot of green peppers in it. I make it with pork. It has a lot of green chili. I get my chilis from Pueblo, but last year I bought my chilis from a little place, a little garden shop that had chilis from New Mexico, which I think are a little better chili, they’re a little fatter. The taste is so much better.
You mean spicier?
You’ve got different types of green you know, like Big Jim, Anaheim, and then you have hot. A lot of times I’ll take a mild green and mix it in with a hotter green. Last year mine came out pretty warm, but I won.
We usually try and get judges from outside, or we’ve had Chef Ed [from Bon Appetit]. I’ve had Stewy, the lacrosse coach, she’s judged a couple of times.
How many people usually take part?
It was a lot bigger in the past. We used to get easily 100 people that would come to it. Last year there was maybe 50 or 60 people that showed up. The most we’ve had is about 17 entries.
What are the main components of a good chili?
A good chili? Good green peppers, good pork, onions, garlic, a little bit of tomato, just a little bit, and bouillon, chicken bouillon, really makes a good green chili. I also make a roux for it. I make a roux out of butter and olive oil, and add it to the chili to thicken it up just a little bit.
Is that something your mother taught you?
No, it’s something I probably learned on the food channel or something [laughs]. I know growing up my mom didn’t make roux, but they used corn starch … I hate cornstarch, it’s awful. I don’t use cornstarch in anything. Who knows what’s in corn starch!
I know, my mom says the same thing.
Growing up, I remember there were meals that my mom would make that were quintessentially her dishes.
It was chili. Back then too, when we’d make chili, they didn't have the big roasters that you see today … they have these big roasters made out of big drums and they use propane and they spin, so they cook the chili pretty quick. That's how it’s done today. Back in the day, we used to roast it in the oven. It would take you all day. You would roast it and then freeze it. I grew up with a New Mexico style chili.
Do you associate memories with chili?
I do with my grandmother. My grandmother made this awesome red chili that to this day I can’t duplicate. She used to make a chili paste. I still can’t find anything like it today. Whenever I was going to come over, she’d make a pot of red chili for me.
Was this your idea? Did you start the chili competition tradition at CC?
It was me and my old supervisor. We both liked green chili, we both loved it. So we thought “let’s do a chili cook-off!” So we started it, and it was a hit. The spoons that I have [the winning prize], the carpenters make every year. So you get a gift certificate if you win, plus a really cool spoon [laughs].
How does it work on the day?
We usually try and get the judging done by 2 or 3 o’clock so that people can start drinking beer and eating chili!
What is your favorite part of the whole competition? What makes it so special?
Being able to see other colleagues that you don’t really get to see throughout the year, you know. They’ll come down, and you’ll sit down and talk to them for a while. Just getting together with people.
Of all the flavors (spice, sweet, sour, etc) is spice the most compelling to you? And why?
Spice is the most compelling, especially after I went through chemo. I found that anything that was spicy, I could eat. It wouldn’t affect my taste buds. Even before that, I loved anything spicy. I like curry, you know, something that has a good bite to it. Savory and spice.
Even eggs, I’m eating eggs today, I couldn’t eat eggs for months. They were awful. I remember taking a bite of a boiled egg and I spit it out, it was so bad. I thought, “Oh no, I’m not going to be able to eat this, I love eggs!” So after I was done [with chemo] I went and I got eggs benedict, and it was so good [laughs].
Taste is something I feel like we take for granted, and it’s things like that hardship that remind you how important it is to taste your food.
Yeah it is. And you know, green chili is loaded with vitamin C. It has more vitamin C than an orange. There are so many types of peppers, it’s crazy.
What else is there to know about your chili making process?
When you’re working with green chili, especially if it’s hot, you don’t want to rub your eyes for a while, because that hurts. I’ve done it a couple of times. After two times, you remember.
I’ve had a couple vegetarian friends that will eat my chili with the pork in it. One time I made green chili for my vegetarian friends with tofu … it was awful!
I’ve tried to teach people how to make it, but it just doesn’t come out the same.
Have you ever read “Like Water For Chocolate?”
No, I’ve heard about it though.
You’re making me think about scenes in that book where, when one of the characters cooks a meal, her emotions go into the food as well. So when people eat what she makes, they feel the way she did when she made it.
You know, that makes a lot of sense. Because I do the same thing when I’m making my chili.
Yes, I’ve noticed that sometimes when I’ve made it, it’s like uugh, but sometimes when I’m really, really into it, it comes out awesome.
When I cook my green chili, it usually takes about three to four hours, because I slow cook my pork in a dutch oven. When that’s cooking, I clean my chili and dice it up. I throw that in another pot, add some water to it, just a little small can of whole peeled tomatoes, and let that start cooking down. Even though the chilis are already cooked, I cook them down even more. Once the pork is done, then I add onions and garlic. Then, I add everything into the green chili, with the bouillon and let that cook a little longer.
Oh, you’re sharing your secrets?
Ah, that’s okay. I don’t think anybody could make it as good as me. I challenge them to make it.
You should teach a class!
Yes! Give me some good wine, and we’ll start cooking!
Heat Issue | November 2018