There was heated competition at this year’s chili cook-off that took place during the 14th Industry Appreciation Day held last weekend in Kenai.
Six teams showed up: the Kenai Lions, Kenai Eagles, Kenai Moose Lodge, American Legion Post No. 20, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Kenai Peninsula Republican Women organization.
There were plenty of spicy exchanges as competitors boasted about their own chili while knocking that cooked by those around them.
“Come try our chili. It’s going to be the award winner,” yelled one team.
“No, try ours. We use real meat, not roadkill,” countered another team.
“You’ve had the rest, now try the best,” added a third team.
The cooks did everything short of throwing handfuls of red pepper into the eyes of their competitors in an effort to draw the crowd to their own bubbling batch of fiery flavor.
Sue Fore tries to lure Industry Appreciation Day chili contest judges to the VFW Post No. 10046 pot last weekend as other contestants ply their recipes.
Each competitor showed up with a minimum of four gallons of chili and all left with none, but that was the only thing the groups had in common.
Competitors showed up with chili in crock pots, kettles and insulated coolers. Some had a soupy sauce with the ingredients finely minced, while others had chili with huge hunks of meat and vegetables that was so thick a spoon wouldn’t just stand up in it, but could potentially beak off while trying to stir a batch.
Some of the chili was a deep, crimson red with big, plump kidney beans. Other chili was brown like gravy with smaller beans of the black, pinto or navy variety.
In the end, though, there could be only one winner for the chili with the best texture, consistency, blending of spices, aroma, color and, most importantly, taste.
This year the recipient of the small gold chef statuette and bragging rights for the next 12 months went to the Kenai Lions. They swept the contest, winning three separate categories: spiciest chili, people’s choice for best chili and best chili overall.
Like pizza, chili is as different as the chefs who cook it.
“It was a long time coming trying to get that trophy back, but we were emphatic about getting it,” said Phylis Swarner, a member of the Lions.
This was the Lions’ fourth time winning for best chili overall, but it had been a few years since their last win.
“There was some good competition out there this year, made by some good folks. We all had fun and tasted each others’ chili, but we knew we had the best out there,” Swarner said.
Swarner said the spice came largely from jalapeno peppers and even a few fiery habaneros. She said these vegetables combined with the other spices and ingredients to make a dish that had a smooth flavor, but was still bold enough to make a statement.
“It was hot, but not so hot it would burn. We didn’t want it to just taste like beans, but we didn’t want people to pass out from eating it, either,” she said.
In the end, Swarner said the Lions found a perfect balance between the two.
“It was good. It was hot, but sweet too. It seemed like it just exploded in your mouth as the flavors came through,” she said.
As to how this perfection was attained, Swarner said it wasn’t something she could disclose. Not because she feared it would be replicated by her competitors during next year’s cook-off, but because she honestly didn’t know exactly what was in it.
“Our secret is that each Lion in the contest makes a pot from a family recipe and we combine them to make a great big pot, but nobody knows what each person puts in their own pot,” she said.
Swarner said this is a good thing for two main reason. The first being that participants tasting chili at the cook-off can look forward to knowing that no two batches of Lions chili is ever the same.
“Each year it’s a little different,” she said.
The second reason the chili is combined is so it represents the true spirit of teamwork, Swarner said.
“When you blend things and work together, good things come out of it. That’s how it is in the Lions and that’s how it is in life,” she said.
The Moose Lodge, last year’s winner for best chili overall, didn’t maintain their reign, but they didn’t go home empty-handed either. They placed second for best chili overall and took home the award for best costumes.
“We tried to dress up like hillbillies,” said Bob Roach of the Moose Lodge.
“I didn’t really know what a hillbilly was supposed to dress like so I just threw on some old-fashioned, flap-in-the-back long underwear and wore a straw hat,” he said.
His teammates were similarly dressed in bibbed overalls, holey Levi’s jeans and old hats, and while Roach said he was happy to win an award, he was a little disappointed it wasn’t for the Moose’s chili.
“I thought ours was pretty good. I prepared it three days in advance, slow cooking, so the flavor would move all through the meat,” he said.
There was a lot of meat for the flavor to move through, and not your run-of-the-mill ground round, either, Roach said.
“We had no hamburger this year. It was all New York steak, 18 pounds in all,” he said.
Adding to the meatiness of the Moose’s hearty chili was the fact that they used hardly any beans, as many argue is the way chili is suppose to be.
“In real chili there’s no beans at all. Next year that’s what we’ll do no beans. It’ll be authentic chili,” Roach said.
The Eagles took home the third-place ribbon, but more importantly than their standing in the finals was making it known that their chili recipe came from a good friend of many Eagles members, and a spicy character in his own right.
“We made this using Tommy Thompson’s recipe,” said Eagles team member Mick Eatherly.
Eatherly explained that Thompson had recently fallen into ill health and he and the other Eagles hoped he would get well soon.
Sissy Brown, one of the cooks for the Republican Women team, also lamented about what could have been done differently with their chili. She said she makes chili frequently enough to know what likely led to her group’s batch not taking the prize for first.
“I’m a cook up on the North Slope and I’ll make chili at least once a week, but sometimes every three days because the guys love it,” she said.
Brown said when she makes her chili on the Slope she sometimes include jalapenos to kick it up a notch, but like the political views of her organization last Saturday, she said her chili was a little conservative.
Brown said she mostly relied on bell peppers mixed with a bit of chili powder, cayenne pepper and crushed red peppers.
Herb Stettler, the cook for the American Legion team, said he would also make changes to his chili next season in the hopes of placing higher.
“I used a new recipe this year, but I think I might have done better with my old one. This year’s took about an hour off my prep time, but it didn’t fly so good,” he said.
Stettler said his new recipe required mostly dried chilies from different regions of the world that he boiled for a base. He then added hamburger meat and the other vegetables and ingredients.
“Next year I’m using all fresh everything. I’ll chop and blanch Romano tomatoes, instead of using stewed tomatoes. I’ll also use buffalo meat instead of ground beef,” he said.
Stettler said he usually uses buffalo meat for his chili because the meat is sweet and absorbs the overall flavor of the chili spices better, but this year he couldn’t find any in time for the cook-off.
“I waited too long to get started,” he said.
Stettler said if this scenario plays out again next year, he still won’t go with hamburger. Instead he may opt for something completely unique a smoked seafood product produced locally.
“I’ve heard Fred West has a fish sausage that’s delicious in chili, so next year I may go with that,” Stettler said.
Not everyone who didn’t place high in this year’s cook-off was eager to make changes to their chili.
“I like mine how it is,” said Sue Fore, cook for the VFW team.
Fore said her recipe was the same one she uses at home, and the same that won her first place in the cook-off two years ago.
“It’s thick and mild. I don’t like hot food. I’m a big weakling, so I don’t put anything that’s hot in there. It’s mostly bell peppers, hamburger, two kinds of beans, cumin and a pinch of this and a pinch of that,” she said.
As to what secret ingredients she uses, Fore said there was only one.
“Love is my secret ingredient,” she said.
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