This is a story about being thoroughly trounced by a dip.
Before you judge, just try making guacamole for 200 people. Oh, and make it in three identical and perfectly consistent batches — not too smooth, not too chunky, and without blemish. One more thing: make it good enough to beat seven other recipes in tournament-style taste testing. It’s harder than you think.
I do actually make a mean guac. I’ve eaten the stuff for as long as I can remember, and I started bringing my own recipe to parties about 10 years ago, perfecting it during a six-year stopover in guac-loving Texas. I make it from scratch, of course, and I consider it more than decent.
So I was intrigued when I found out that a guy a few streets over from us throws a party every year at which the main event is a three-round guacamole competition. I’ve got this one in the bag, I thought. I lived in Texas, for crying out loud, and I’d be as likely to find great guacamole in Boston as I would remarkable chowder in San Antonio. Of course, I had to attend one Guac Fest (as it is referred to locally, along with “Guac-Off”) as a spectator before jumping into the competition — to scout out the potential competition, you know.
Several of the recipes at that initial competition were fantastic — and those that were featured as the main ingredient the avocado. This may seem elementary, but you’d be shocked at the number of people who think other ingredients in guacamole should be allowed to muscle to the front. Cumin, hot sauce, onion, and, yes, lime are all repeat offenders in this area, and several of the recipes on offer that first year fell into this trap.
No, top-shelf guacamole must bring out the inherent deliciousness of what I (and others) believe to be one of nature’s perfect offerings: the avocado. “Next year,” I muttered to myself as I sampled the subpar offerings, “I am so competing in this thing.”
Fast-forward one year. I’m in my kitchen. It’s two o’clock, exactly one hour before I must deliver my homemade guacamole (separated into three equal portions) to the party before the doors open to the public. If I’m late, the Guacmaster (no joke) may throw me out of the contest. In front of me on my kitchen counter are 20 limes, a huge bag of cilantro, 16 roasted garlic cloves, a bottle of adobo seasoning, and 20 avocadoes.
I need only 15 avocadoes, but when was the last time you heard of 15 avocadoes ripening in perfect unison? For three days prior, the little fruits had sat under my watchful eye, alternating locations between brown paper bags, the countertop, and the refrigerator. Like eggs under an expectant hen, many of these avocadoes would make it, and a few would not. They’d be too hard, too soft, or too brown.
But when I begin cutting into my little packages of joy, I don’t have time to worry about whether or not they’re perfect; I have only 50 minutes until I must deliver my package to the drop zone. “Where’s my assistant,” I think, “to peel and chop these avocadoes?” Peeling, it seems, erases half my prep time right off the bat.
The food processor I start out using (which can only fit about two large avocadoes per blend) is soon traded out for a much bigger and more powerful smoothie blender capable of fitting all five avocadoes per batch. As I quickly realize, though, the blender is pulverizing the mixture into a green paste resembling that plastic-wrapped, store-bought concoction that too often passes for guacamole. But with no time to panic about the consistency of my dip, I continue with the blender and begin mashing one avocado per container by hand to simulate a chunkier dip.
Ten minutes until go-time. I’ve prepared two of the three containers. By now, I’m flying — removing entire avocado halves from their skin with one scoop of my spoon, tossing roasted garlic and cilantro indiscriminately into the blender, and seasoning with reckless abandon. It ain’t pretty, but it’s getting the job done fast.
A minute or two past three, and I am throwing the three containers into a bag, running to the car, and driving the couple of blocks to the party location. The Guacmaster meets me at the door with outstretched arms and whisks my dip away to be randomly numbered and stashed in his giant refrigerator. Breathless, I grab a beer and head down to the yard, where several of my competitors are kicked back like college students who’ve just finished their last final.
We’re not allowed to discuss — with each other or any other partygoer — the specifics of our recipes. Conversations, then, are appropriately cloaked in mystery, like a politician answering reporters’ questions outside the home of his alleged mistress.
“You do anything different this year?” I ask a guy who’s won or been a finalist every year.
“A thing or two,” he mumbles.
As for where we sourced our avocadoes, we protect our dealers like nervous baseheads. I even ask one competitor whether she used Mexican avocadoes, and she shoots me a look that screams, “Fat chance I’m telling you, buddy.”
The format is tournament-style, like March Madness for food dorks. Round one pits the eight guacamoles against each other in four head-to-head taste-test throwdowns. After the first two guacamoles are delivered to the yard by zip-line and accompanied by rapid-fire Latin guitar chords, I hop in line with my family and some friends to do our civic duty.
The line creeps forward, past a spread of non-avocado-based goodies and piles of handouts and swag (avocado peelers, keychains) provided by the party’s sponsors (the California Avocado Growers and Chilean Avocado Board) until before us are a bowl of chips and two containers of guacamole.
I can tell immediately by the presence of tomatoes that neither is mine. (Wish I had a do-over on that.) We can taste each dip up to two times, are forbidden from making any comments or distinguishing gestures that might influence voters, and must cast our votes immediately. Both guacamoles in that first tasting are surprisingly similar, and both are definitely better than mine.
Sure enough, my guac is one of the next two that comes out. It appears the Guacmaster has pitted (pun intended) me against a comparable dip. While my rival dip also omits tomato and onion, it is a bit chunkier than mine, less limey, and contains what tastes like bits of feta cheese. Even this one I like better than my own, though I can’t bring myself to vote against mine after what I went through a few hours before in my kitchen. I need a beer.
I guess from anecdotal evidence that my defeat in the first round was convincing. Without knowing I was the chef, a couple of friends tell me that after feeling like the decision in the first vote was difficult because of the quality of the first two guacamoles, the next two guacs — including mine, of course — amounted to a monumental letdown. The “pastey, almost whipped one” (mine) was the worst, one friend tells me.
Nothing like being eliminated, followed by two swift kicks to the avocadoes.
My locker-room explanation goes something like this: I didn’t give myself enough time. I underestimated the scope of the project. I factored in my preferences over everyone else’s. I whipped — whipped! — the avocadoes when they required a much gentler toss by hand. I winged it with the ingredients rather than measuring things out. Blah, blah, blah. That’s it for the press conference — I need to hit the showers, guys.
Guacamole is arguably the most difficult party food to prepare well, and when it must feed 200 people, all bets are off. Its preparation requires considerable precision, along with a good amount of luck. A pinch too many of some seasoning, an avocado left to ripen a few hours too long, or simply the wrong combination of ingredients can send a guacamole hurtling past indifferent into inedible territory. This particular day, mine somehow avoids the latter stage. Nevertheless, I leave humbled.
At least I have a year to train for my sweet, sweet revenge. Until then, I’ll be green with guacamole envy.
Steve Holt is a writer, gardener, husband, and dad. His articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Edible Boston, and a number of places online. His feature about guilt-free fast food will be reprinted in the 2011 edition of Best Food Writing.
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