Coach splits time between family, chili

Sesario Ramos holds a spoonful of asado Wednesday at his home in Clovis. Ramos has competed in chili cook-offs for more than 30 years. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Torn between two loves — chili and family — seasoned chili chef Sesario Ramos chose family. Instead of attending the International Chili Cook-off, he went to see his nephew play in one of the last football games of his high school career.

Ramos, however, will make the annual trip to the Terlingua, Texas cook-off next year, special spices and meat in tow.

For more than 30 years, the Gattis Junior High School coach has competed in chili cook-offs across the state and in western parts of the country. Terlingua cook-off participants must score enough points at competitions throughout the year to be eligible for the competition. And accumulating points for this chili master isn’t difficult.

The first time Ramos entered a chili competition, he snagged first place.

“Once you win first place, of course, you are hooked,” Ramos said, a baseball cap atop his salt and pepper hair.

Competition chili is bare-bones chili; it contains only meat and spices, Ramos said. “The chili I cook at home is 180 degrees different from the chili I cook at competitions. I cook mine hotter and spicier at home. I also add fillers — things like beans and tomatoes,” he said.

It seems Ramos is somewhat of a divinely ordained chili-making expert. Originally from Texas, he didn’t inherit insider secrets from family members, he simply experimented a lot — first at a college party with a beef head, he said.

His wife Melba leaves the cooking to him, although it hasn’t always been that way (and she still keeps her tortilla recipe a secret).

“I gave him some tips when he first started — like to always drain the meat. That’s really important,” said Melba, who attended elementary and high school with her husband. “He always gives me cup (after a competition) so I can tell him if he did good.”

Over the years, Ramos has learned good chili takes time and a whole lot of patience. It must be cooked slowly over low heat, he said. “A woman can have a baby quicker than I can make chili,” Ramos joked.

Strangely, Ramos does not rely on his taste buds while cooking chili.

“I don’t ever taste my own chili in a competition. I don’t trust my own tastebuds,” said Ramos, who uses cactus juice — an ingredient he doesn’t personally find pleasing — in his competition chili.

He said he usually just asks fellow competitors to sample his chili, and names the finished products things such as “Roadkill Chili” or “Three-Dump Chili.” Just more evidence of his laid-back attitude.

Competition chili is judged on its consistency and the tenderness of the meat, as well as its flavor, color, taste and after-taste, Ramos said. It isn’t fierce competition, however, that keeps Ramos coming back.

“People come from all over the world. It’s just a fun thing … And when the competition is over, we put our meat down and our spices down, and we say ‘see you down the chili trail,’” Ramos said.

Another draw: Part of the entry fee for the Terlingua competition is donated to charities, Ramos said.