Category Archives: chili

Chili Interview: Writer Sharon Hudgins on Why Chili Inspires Passion

I asked McKinney, Texas-based food scholar Sharon Hudgins why she thinks chili inspires such passion. Here is her insightful answer:

Sharon Hudgins

“Chili in its purest—that is, Texas—form is easy and inexpensive to make, but when it’s done well, it has layers of flavors that provide both psychological comfort and gustatory pleasure. The meat protein makes you feel full in the stomach and powered up for whatever comes your way.  The chiles provide the heat that give the dish its capsaicin kick, setting off your endorphins and making you feel good on a higher level than just having a full stomach.

The subject of chili is as controversial as Texas is big.  Even Texans don’t agree about the ‘correct’ composition of this dish.  Those who like to add pinto beans (and even tomatoes) to it are shunned by the purists—but a substantial segment of the population persists in thinking (rightly so) that chili with beans is a pretty good combination, too. The real rub is when Texans are served chili from other places, such as Cincinnati chili with kidney beans (!) and spaghetti (!!).

And don’t even let a true Texan get near a bowl of  California chili, with its effete additions of black olives, avocado slices, shredded cheese, and sour cream.  In my humble opinion, I think this is a really seductive combination of ingredients—but I can’t admit it because I still have to live in Texas.  However, I do think that every time you add another ingredient to the basic recipe of meat, chiles, and onions, you’re diluting those fundamental flavors and creating a dish that’s different from what many Texans consider a true ‘bowl of red.'”


Sharon Hudgins is an award-winning author of four books and more than 700 articles published in magazines, newspapers, scholarly journals, and on the Web.  A former editor of CHILE PEPPER magazine, she has written several articles about chili powder and chili-the-dish. Currently she is the food editor of EUROPEAN TRAVELER and the food columnist for GERMAN LIFE magazine, USA. She also lectures on culinary, historical, and ethnographical topics on tours offered by National Geographic Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions, Silversea Cruises, and other tour companies. Her travel memoir, THE OTHER SIDE OF RUSSIA: A SLICE OF LIFE IN SIBERIA AND THE RUSSIAN FAR EAST, is now in its third printing, and she is writing a sequel about her further adventures in Russia. So far, she has survived 35,000 miles of travel on the Trans-Siberian railroad and several servings of raw mare’s milk in Mongolian gers.

Chili Interview: Doug Downing, Veteran Chili Cook-off Judge and Creator of Double D's Sauces

Chicago native Doug Downing is the creator of Double D’s Sauces, a line of homemade hot sauces, spices, and salsas. His current products feature the intense heat and smoky sweet flavor of bhut jolokia (or ghost pepper), the hottest pepper in the world.  He has judged more than 10 chili cook-offs, including the Illinois State Cook-off.

Gina: What are your favorite peppers with which to make chili?

Doug: Jalepeño and ghost for my “homestyle” chili, but for competition, your main heat comes from powders, such as hot chili powder, cayenne, and chipotle.  On the competition circuit it is all about repeatability and that is not something you can get from fresh produce.  A good example is a jalepeño pepper–sometimes they are very mild and others can be very, very hot.

Gina: What are the important criteria to consider when judging chili?

Doug: Color, consistency, aroma, and taste.  Chili needs to be a deep red color.  If it is true competition chili, there should be no fillers (beans, rice, etc)–only meat, preferably steak cut into quarter inch cubes. It should have a great fragrance, a hint of cumin, that makes you want to taste it.  Once you do taste the chili, after letting it linger on your tongue, does it have the right heat? Flavor? Not too much cumin, which comes across as bitter.

Gina: What makes the difference between a good chili and a great one?

Doug: The right blend of heat and flavor.  Cumin in the right quantity is what makes a competition chili.  You can be first place one month and with the same recipe the next month you might come in dead last.  There are nuances to different regions.  Some like it hot and salty, some with more sweet, almost like BBQ sauce you just have to experiment.

Gina: What does it take to be a good chili judge?

Doug: An open mind and attention to detail.  You have to weigh the color, aroma, and consistency with what you find appealing.  Place even weight on each element so as not to exclude a great looking, smelling and textured chili just because it is a little sweeter than you like.

Gina: Do you have any tips for chili judges?

Doug: An open mind and consistency. Consistency brings credibility.

Gina: Do you have any tips for chili cook-off contestants?

Doug: Practice and hold true to your tastes.  It takes a while to figure out how to cube the meat correctly and how to make a nice, deep red gravy (what the liquid is called). You have to make something that tastes good to you, because you cannot make everyone happy. Produce a product you feel is great.

Gina: You’ve participated in a lot of chili contests. What are the logistical details that need to be thought through? What elements make for a great chili cook-off?

Doug: Have a good reliable cassette burner.  You have to bring and prepare everything on site with you (pots, spices, meat, measuring cups, spoons etc.). Be sure to do a run through so you know you can prepare it all with no outside help.  I once forgot olive oil and my wife drove frantically around some small Chicago neighborhoods to find it for me in a nick of time.  You can never be too prepared.

Gina: Why do you love chili?

Doug: It was a staple growing up and brings back great memories of fall days and family gatherings.  We weren’t eating competition chili, but when doing competition chili the other cooks become a small family. It really is fun and relaxing.

Gina: Do you have any favorite chili-related songs?

Doug: I hate to show my age, but anything heavy metal, 80s hair bands really says chili to me.




Chili Interview: John Raven, Chili Expert and Chili Cook-off Daredevil Stuntman

John Raven

John Raven, Ph. B (Dr. of Barbecue Philosophy) is a member of the Chili Appreciation Society International Hall of Fame. Born and raised in Taylor, Texas,  he founded and published a chili cook-off newsletter called Goat-Gap Gazette in 1974 and wrote for it for 24 years. For the past 12 years, he has served as the Southwestern and Texas style food expert for, where his articles are archived under “Traditional Texas Food.”   He recently won 1st Runner Up in the Texas Monthly Where I’m From Short Film Contest (scroll down to see his entry titled Lyndon’s Hills).

Gina: Approximately how many chili cook-offs have you participated in as a contestant and judge? What were your proudest achievements?

John: I have participated in hundreds of chili cook-offs. Starting as lowly, first time chili cook to being a finals judge at the World Championship at Terlingua.

I am proudest of having three trophies from Chilympiad, the Texas State Men’s Chili Cook-Off. I won the first one in 1974, which was for being in the top ten at the cook-off. There were probably 40-50 cooks in the competition. In 1980, I took 6th place out of a field of over 300 cooks and in 1985, I was in the top 20 cooks out of over 300 again. Chilympiad was the greatest cook-off of all time.

John Raven's chili booth was a fixture at Texas chili cook-offs from 1974 through the mid-1980s.

Gina: I gather you’re known for your great pyrotechnic daredevil acts at chili cook-offs. What kinds of things did you do and why?

John: I worked with explosives in my chili showmanship. The main shows were: The backpack rocket and The Diabolical Death machine. The backpack rocket was a homemade device that mostly just blew up without the expected space flight. The best backpack exhibition was done at the Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio in 1975, a photo of that has become standard for articles about Folklife Festival.


The best Diabolical Death Machine performance was at Traders Village in Grand Prairie, Texas. It started the only goat stampede ever witnessed.

John Raven in his backpack rocket.

The Diabolical Death Machine at Great Luckenbach World Fair circa 1970-something.

John Raven as Daredevil Bad McFad

Gina: I read  that you think chili cook-offs have gone down hill in recent years. What’s changed about them? What were the glory years and best contests?

John: Chili cook-offs with one or two exceptions have gone in the dumpster in the past 10-15 years. First reason for their demise was the fact that there were too many of them. They were no longer a novelty, you could find three or four within a day’s drive time every weekend. The cook-offs became too regimented. Too many rules and regulations that had nothing to do with making chili. People just love rules and regulations.

When the cook-offs lost their novelty they lost the media attention. In the early 70s any cook-off would get at least one representative of the local press on the grounds. A cook-off that was publicized would get a couple of local TV crews out to tape the action.

The first generation of chili heads loved to entertain crowds of people. They were very good at it. The present day chili heads don’t want any outsiders on the grounds, they want their own little, or big, private party. Their whole reason for being is to get to cook at the “Big Un” in Terlingua. I understand Terlingua still draws a few spectators, I imagine, hoping that the early R rating will still be working.

The “Glory Years” were from 1967, when the first Terlingua contest was held, until about early 80s.

Best cook-off of all time was Chilympiad in San Marcos, any year. Flatonia, Texas has been producing Czhilispiel for over 30 years and it still has some of the original feel to it.

Gina: Who taught you to make chili and how did your technique evolve?

John: I was taught to make chili by the people who were in the chili cook-offs when I started. They were all very helpful and never gave me a bogus tip. Through the years I developed a recipe that was good and improved slightly on the standard technique.

Gina: What makes the difference between a good chili and a great one?

John: Individual tastes. Not everyone likes the same thing. The chili or whatever wins a cooking contest is the entry that offends the least number of judges.

Gina: What’s your advice for cook-off contestants?

John: A competitive chili cook will be consistent. His/her product will not be good one time, awful the next. Find the people who win consistently and probe them for tips. Taste their chili and go in that direction. You will never get anyone’s “secret.” The chili that wins will be the one that has the best blend of spices and a consistent texture.

Gina: What criteria should a chili judge consider and do you have any tips for judges?

John: A food judge will use his/her taste to grade the sample . You will be told to rate sample on: Color, Aroma, and Taste.

Chili cannot be made from hamburger. The meat in real chili will be coarse or “chili” grind. The best chili is made with small chunks of meat roughly one-half inch square. It does not have to be square, any shape will do.

The first chili of the day that you taste will taste great. From there the ratings will bounce all over the place. That is why the judges all get a different sample to be their first taste. I bet you didn’t know that.

Gina: Chili seems to inspire extraordinary passion. Why do you think that is?

John: Chili is like an urban legend. There are thousands of stories about it, some truth, some fiction.

Chili takes us back in our genetic memory to the time we were squatting around the campfire. It is an ancient recipe.

The chili we know today grew up out of hard times. In the times when the basic food was skinny, tough wild cattle and whatever vegetables we could find. Somewhere along the way, meat and the chile met. It was the beginning of a long lasting romance. When cumin came to the new world with the Canary Island settlers in San Antonio, Texas it became the spice that has held chili together all these many years.

In the Great Depression the chili parlors, which served chili for a dime a bowl, kept many a poor soul from giving up.

The chili legend was kept alive by a bunch of guys who held a mutual respect for chili. When chili fell out of favor in the good times following WWII the guys came up with the World Championship Chili Cook-Off at Terlingua and generated enough interest in the peasant dish to have it nominated as “The National Food of the United States.” Papa John’s pizza will never get that far.

Guest Blog Post: Renée M. DeLuca on Chili and Beer

Renée M. DeLuca is the daughter of pioneer microbrewer Jack McAuliffe, founder of New Albion Brewing. She recently launched the Brewer’s Daughter Marketing & Public Relations Agency, which specializes in promoting the craft brewing industry. Renée lives in Northeast Ohio with her husband, Paul, two teenagers, a 100 lb. yellow lab, two cats, and a refrigerator full of beer. You can follow her on Twitter @brewersdaughter or email her at Here’s her advice on chili and beer.

The Perfect Pair: Chili and Beer
By Renée M. DeLuca

Chili and beer go together like, well, chili and beer! It’s a perfect taste combination. But don’t ruin your wonderful chili recipe that you labored over with that yellow fizzy stuff that’s advertised during every break of every football game. You put love in that pot, and the beer you have with it should love it back. That’s where craft beer comes in. Wonderful, flavorful brew with character. It’s a little more expensive, but it’s more than worth it.

If your chili is the fairly standard spicy beef and bean combination, I highly recommend a bourbon style beer, like Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. The boozy flavor of the beer offsets the spices and brings the taste profile of the chili to a whole new level.

Got white chicken chili simmering in a pot? How about something hoppy for contrast. Stone Ruination IPA has the hops that’ll do it. Or choose your favorite IPA.

A rich vegetarian chili deserves a toasty brown ale to held meld those flavors. Sierra Nevada’s Tumbler Autumn Brown Ale has notes of brown sugar and toffee and a warm goodness that will bring out the best in your recipe. Another great pairing would be a pumpkin ale–Dogfish Head’s Punkin‘ is deliciously balanced, and not overspiced.

And if you have a little chocolate in your chili recipe, Rogue’s Chocolate Stout is the perfect complement. The flavors of oats, malt and yes, chocolate will have your guests oohing and ahhing over the combination with the chili. You’ll find a number of stouts in your beer speciality store–see which one is your favorite by holding a taste test with your guests.

Aside from drinking these fine brews along side your chili, it never hurts to pour a little into the pot while you’re cooking and sipping. It deepens the flavor of the chili, and makes those pairings really stand out. So cheers to chili and beer!

Chili Interview: Brooklyn Chili Takedown Founder Matt Timms

My agent gave me a heads up about the 2011 Brooklyn Chili Takedown yesterday and I was immediately smitten by founder Matt Timms’s assertion that “chili is a foul seductress, people” and that “this is a no rulez competition that says rules… are for Texans.” Much as I love a traditional Texas bowl of red, I have a soft spot for newfangled chili rebels and I’ve decided to feature the Takedown’s People’s Choice-winning recipe in my Chili Cook-Off in a Box.

Gina: So what’s your deal, Matt?

Matt: I’m an actor, a filmmaker, an artist, and a party promoter for my events at I throw amazing parties and occasionally someone will cast me in something and I act all amazing, or I will shoot something amazing.  I’m totally a self-taught cook–had to be in NYC–and I don’t give a truck about prochefs too much–I’ve had too much fun partying with home cooks like myself around the country.

Gina: How many food competitions have your thrown and what is your inspiration?

Matt: I guess I’ve thrown about 50-60 Takedowns over the years and across the country–been doing this for like a decade now!!! Chili, cookies, bacon, fondue, salsa takedowns–whatever.  The inspiration was totally assed up boredom, especially when I was a starving actor when I first got to NYC. I have this unquenchable desire to party very hard to the point of an explosion!

Gina: What’s the structure of your chili contest? How many competitors?

Matt: Pretty simple! People line up and try each of the 25 chilies–they get a tasting cup of each–and then they vote on the yummiest!  Judges do the same! Throughout the whole process, I play very brutal heavy music, which is important. Then there’s a big ol’ ceremony where the crowd meets the contestants, and the winners are named, awards given!

Gina: What’s the range of kinds of chili you expect people will enter?

Matt: I run a no-rules chili competition–because if you’re from NYC, the cowboys aren’t down with you anyway, so just have fun.   I see veggie chilis, all the different meat chilis, and then people go bonkers off the map–candy chili, ice cream chili… stupid fun stuff.

Gina Who will judge the chili and what criteria will they use to judge it?

Matt: I get local food writers, bloggers, and food personages to come party, but the major prizes are the People’s Choice. I am the benevolant leader of a tyranical democracy!

Gina: Do you have any tips for chili cook-off competitors?

Matt: Use your imagination and come to have fun.  Think of it like a party and not a competition.  The whole idea of a food competition should be about partying.  It’s a catalyst for hanging out. And a chance to show a wider audience how your food rips.

Gina: What do you think makes the difference between a good chili and a great one?

Matt: How much love you put in that shit.  You can follow a recipe to a T and it could easily be meh.  But people come to a Takedown to show everyone how insane their cooking skills are –and when you come with that attitude, you throw all your positive energy into that batch of chili, and people can taste it.

Gina: What sort of a space is the Bell House?

Matt: Bell House is a rock club, probably the best venue in NYC.

Gina: How many people do you expect to attend?

Matt: I keep it small. 200 is my magic number!

Gina: Why do you love chili?

Matt: My site was originally called–I was only throwing chili parties because they are the raddest.  Basically chili is the most important food group if you are starving.  You can make a huge pot of it, keep it in the fridge all week–and the best part is, it only get better and better over the week as the flavors wed! So when your friends ask you to join them at some re$taurant, you can say naw man I just ate.  And you can put all of that money into drinking.

I used to be a card-carrying member of the ICS (International Chili Society) and loved it, but the rules are pretty serious.  Meat has to be rough ground or cut into 1/2 in. or smaller cubes, no visible seasoning, spoon has to stand horizontally and fall slowly for best texture, blah blah blah. And ask any Texan, they’ll tell you about “no beans” “no tomatoes” etc. etc. I love those big competition chilis, but I didn’t want to see my chili parties like a chemistry experiment of closely monitored chili dumps. Chili is a fukked up improvisation! People should go nuts and throw in the kitchen sink!

Chili Song: Preston Love's "Chili Mac"

I’m compiling the Chili Cookoff in a Box chili tunes playlist. Preston Love‘s “Chili Mac” is a winner and this may be the best album cover of all time.

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