I Finally Won the Annual Chili Cook-off The year was 2008. I had tried for the past few years to produce a winning pot of chili, but Tom Hammer always seemed to dominate the competition. The first few years there were two categories: carnivorous and vegetarian. I entered chilies into both, substituting things like black olives, mushrooms and such for meat, in the vegetarian version. I even went with that soybean stuff that looks like ground meat, a time or two for some added flare; but alas, no trophies were awarded, even though I always took home an empty (6 quart) pot of the meaty chili.

So, how did I finally win? I stopped trying. You see, I never cook with a recipe (well, almost never but we can talk about pies later), so after several disappointing years of entering the cook-off without success, I decided to just make those who always seemed to really like the heat in my entries very, very happy. Every few years, I plant a tabasco pepper in my yard and dry them for use in cooking. They add great flavor and one plant can supply several years’ worth of spice. These are the starting ingredient in many of my dishes such as my famous “baked” beans, soups, sautéed cabbage (one of my favorites) and of course my chili.

Back to October 2008. I went to Kroger on my way home, to pick up stuff for the next day’s competition. I grabbed some onions, bell peppers, garlic (no such thing as too much garlic), hot Bloemer’s chili base, chili powder, chili hot beans, kidney beans (because that’s what momma always used), and spicy canned tomatoes. At least I thought that was the plan. Next I perused the available meat products and grabbed some ground beef, hot breakfast sausage, hot kielbasa and steak.

When I got home I chopped the veggies, sautéed them with the tabasco peppers, added the canned tomatoes and while that was all simmering, I started browning the meat. After everything was cooked, it was time to combine the ingredients. Steak, ground beef, sausages…..oh, no! The pot was full! What was I going to do about the kidney and hot chili beans? I wondered if I should divide it up in multiple pots to make room for the beans? What was I going to do?

They tell me in Texas you better not serve up anything with beans in it and call it chili, so Texas chili it was for this year’s competitions. I was glad I hadn’t opened those cans of beans. With the decision to move forward with the Texas chili made, the aroma began to permeate the house. My wife, Dana couldn’t wait for flavors of the meats and veggies to meld. She tried it and loved it but told me it was really hot. After the initial taste test, it was time to let it bubble a while before letting it rest overnight.

The next morning, I got up and went straight to the kitchen to start the reheating process. I got ready for work, carefully loaded the pot into my car and drove to work, doing my best not to spill any. Once in the office, the pot simmered at my desk all morning. Then, as the competition approached, I thought, “What the heck. Go on and put some more of those tobacco peppers and chili powder in. Let’s make them sweat.” Moments later, I got several volunteer taste testers and a few complaints about hunger pangs caused by the smell. That batch was spicier and hotter than anything I had ever made. I knew that Kyle, Randy, Jeff and others were really going to enjoy it and foresaw some beads of sweat on foreheads in the near future.

Anyway, the call to present entries for judging finally came and I turned over my entry without any expectation of victory. I figured that I was probably just going to take home another empty pot because that batch was awesome. No brag. Just fact. If memory serves, the winner was not announced until near the end of the lunch hour, and to my amazement the trophy was placed on my desk! It was such a great feeling of victory! Take that, Tom Hammer!
     *Editorial note: Tom’s wife was the real talent behind that award winning chili.

The next year I didn’t enter the chili cook-off, opting to be a judge instead. Oddly a white chili won that year, although many refused to even call it chili. Anyway, I went on to win 3 out of 4 years before being dethroned in 2012 by a great pot of chili that Ron Steele entered.

Moral of the story: Be true to your tastes. Create what pleases you. Play to your fans. The reward of people being disappointed when there is no more, far exceeds trophies….but I must admit; the trophies do look nice on the top of the file cabinet by my desk, for all to see as they step off the elevator. Now, let’s talk pies…

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