Category Archives: contest

Beef, Bourbon, and Roasted Tomato Chili by Hester Velmans, Plus Her Daughter’s Fabulous Pie Wedding

Hester Velmans


Berkshire Grown board member Hester Velmans contributed a delectable Beef, Bourbon, and Roasted Tomato Chili to the Share the Bounty Chili Contest. At the event, she told me about her daughter’s pie-themed wedding held at the family’s barn in Sheffield, Mass. last summer. A friend had given my Pie Contest in a Box as a wedding shower present, which of course I was delighted to hear. Here Hester shares both her chili recipe and photos of the wedding pies – guests brought some 70 pies to the celebration!


Beef, Bourbon, and Roasted Tomato Chili

by Hester Velmans

Here is the unscientific chili recipe (a pinch of this and a pinch of


(8 servings)


First, braise the beef:

1 1/2-2 lbs cuts of beef, eg. strip steaks (whole)

1 tbs olive oil

4-5 cloves garlic, minced

1 large roasted red pepper, peeled, diced

1 onion, diced

1 jalapeno pepper, minced

1 large can crushed tomatoes

4 tbs molassses

2 tbs Bourbon

1 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp ground pepper

3 tbs ground cumin

1 tbs smoked paprika

1 tbs cayenne or chili powder

Sauté the vegetables in olive oil until soft, add other ingredients, place

beef in roasting pan and pour the sauce over. Cover with foil and roast in a

325 F oven for 2 1/2 hrs or until you can pull the beef apart with a fork.


Cool beef and then shred it with a fork into small pieces.


Second, make roasted tomatoes (can be done ahead of time):

10 ripe tomatoes, sliced horizontally into thick slices.

Olive oil

Coarse salt, pepper

A few cloves of garlic, not peeled


Place tomato slices and garlic on rimmed baking sheet, dribble with oil,

season and bake in 350 F oven 30 minutes to an hour (check!) until tomatoes are

getting caramelized. Cool, then press soft garlic out of garlic skins;

process everything (scraping up caramelized bits) either in food processor

or through a food mill.


Third, make chili:

1 or 2 tbs olive oil

2 large onions, diced,

3 bell peppers, any color, diced

1/2 jalapeno pepper, minced

1 large can diced tomatoes

1 tbs chili powder (check seasoning)

1 tsp each of dried oregano and sage

Salt, pepper to taste

1/2 cup Bourbon

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce (to taste)

1 can black beans, drained & rinsed

1 can garbanzo beans, drained

1 ear sweet corn, (cut corn off cob)


In a big pot sauté vegetables (except for corn), add Bourbon, cook for

about 5 minutes to reduce liquid by half, add beans, beef mixture and

roasted tomatoes, cook for about 10 minutes, then add the corn and adjust

seasoning. If too thick, add water or some orange juice.


Best if reheated the next day! Enjoy!


* * * Photos of Hester’s Daughter’s Wedding Pies * * *

Seafood Chili by Laury Epstein

Berkshire Grown board member Laury Epstein contributed an extraordinary seafood chili to the Share the Bounty Chili Contest. She graciously shares the recipe below.

Laury Epstein

Chili of the Sea

by Laury Epstein

Hosteria Fiorella was a wildly popular restaurant  on Third Avenue and the mid-60s, near where we lived in New York City.  This dish was so popular that in the 1980s New York magazine printed the recipe, as found below.

3 slices pancetta, roughly chopped

10 T olive oil

1 c finely diced yellow onion

10 cloves garlic, crushed

3 fresh chili peppers, seeded and thinly sliced

¾ c white wine

Approximately 6 oz. each fresh chicken and turkey link sausage, precooked for 7 minutes and then cut into ½” slices*

3 c chopped tomatoes

2 c plus 6 T canned tomato sauce

2 ½ c canned Great Northern white beans, drained

¾ lb fish fillet (such as flounder), cut in small cubes

¾ lb calamari, cut in rings

30 littleneck clams, minced

1 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined and cut into 2 or 3 pieces

2-3 t cumin powder

Salt to taste

2 T cracked black pepper

If desired, sprinkle chopped parsley, basil, and/or cilantro just before serving**

In a good-size pot, sauté pancetta in olive oil until crisp.  Add onion, garlic, and chili peppers, and cook until tender.  Deglaze pan with wine, then add sausages, tomatoes, tomato sauce, and beans, and simmer over moderate heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes.  Can make chili up to this point well ahead of serving.

Add fish, calamari, clams, and shrimp.  Season with cumin, salt and pepper, and cook, stirring for about 10 minutes.  Stir in fresh herbs and cook for 1 minute longer.

*I was in a minor car accident on my way to Guido’s to get the chicken and turkey sausage, but never got there so to mimic their flavor, I added 2 t dried fennel.  But I’d rather have used the sausage.

**Same excuse for not including the fresh herbs.

Photos from Chili Cook-off in a Box Launch Party/Share the Bounty Benefit Chili Contest at The Meat Market

I woke up pondering the extraordinary diversity of chili recipes and crock pot styles on display at yesterday’s Chili Cook-off in a Box Launch Party/Share the Bounty Benefit Chili Contest at The Meat Market. It was chili as window into the soul, and it revealed some beautiful things about our community. My sincere thanks to everybody who participated in and supported the event. We raised $545, which is enough for Berkshire Grown to buy a full CSA farm share to help feed hungry families next year.

Everyone who attended the contest was given a spoon to sample the chili entries and a bean to vote with by placing it it in the Mason jar in front of their favorite one.

Gina and two young assistants counting the bean votes.

Sean Flynn won 3rd prize with his Grandpa Art’s Cincinnati Chili (which included spaghetti!)

Sean Flynn

Rich Ciotola won second place for his Four Bean Farmer Sausage Chili.

Jeff Blaugrund won first prize for his Jefe’s New Mexican Chile Rojo.

“Chili Cook-off in a Box” Launch Party/Benefit for Share the Bounty at The Meat Market

Gina Hyams and The Meat Market will host a chili contest to celebrate publication of Hyams’s new book/kit, “Chili Cook-off in a Box: Everything You Need to Host a Chili Cook-off” on Sunday, October 7 from 4:00pm to 6:00pm at The Meat Market (389 Stockbridge Road in Great Barrington). Admission is $10 at the door and free for chili contestants.

Proceeds from the event will benefit Berkshire Grown’s Share the Bounty project, which buys shares in local CSA farms to donate to area food pantries and kitchens. Everyone who attends the contest will get to sample various chili entries and vote for the best one.

You don’t need to be a chili expert to enter the contest, you just need a sense of adventure and passion for the spice of life! All kinds of chili are welcome: meat, poultry, vegetarian, or any combination. Contestants will need to deliver a gallon of their favorite chili to The Meat Market at 3:00pm on the day of the contest in either in a crock-pot or disposable chafing set, as well as provide a serving spoon and a list of recipe ingredients.

To enter the chili contest, send an email to that states the type of chili you’ll be entering and your phone number. 

“Chili Cook-off in a Box” will be published by Andrews McMeel Publishing on September 11, 2012. The kit includes a chili cook-off handbook, judge badges, prize ribbons, table tents, and scorecards. The handbook starts with a brief history of chili, then provides step-by-step instructions for how to organize a chili cook-off, chili music playlists, recommendations for chili cook-off themes, a mail-order resource list for chili ingredients, prize-winning recipes and wisdom from chili cook-off winners across the country, and “zen of judging chili” tips to help prepare judges for the big day. It’s the second kit in Hyams’s “In a Box” series of cooking contests, which also includes “Pie Contest in a Box” (published last summer) and “Christmas Cookie Contest in a Box” (forthcoming November 13, 2012).

The Meat Market, which specializes in locally-raised meats, will have special chili grinds and blends available for sale.

Praise for Pie Contest in a Box

“Know any competitive bakers? This nifty kit provides everything you need—badges, ribbons, scorecards, and recipes—to find out whose pie really takes the cake.”

–Lindsay Hunt, Real Simple

“a perfect little gift” –Jackie Burrell, San Jose Mercury News

“Pie Contest in a Box offers an incredibly exciting and tasty way to determine pie favorites, while keeping the fun close to home and your heart. There is concise information to guide you through your own contest and essential tools, including pie toppers, scorecards, judge ribbons and four prize ribbons. This is a fun gift and a great way to settle a baking rivalry.” –Anne-Marie Seltzer, Arlington Advocate

“Pie contest glory! Best advice ever…” –Amy Rogers, WFAEats (and here’s a link to Amy’s essay about using the kit.)

“…In this compact little box, you will find a small handbook that packs a big punch, filled with pie-centric chapters, as well as tips and recipes from champion pie bakers (Black Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie anyone?). The box also includes 12 pie toppers, 60 scorecards, five judge ribbons, and four prize ribbons. There are tons of contest theme possibilities: fruit pies, unusual ingredient pies, single flavor pies, meat pies, or pies that use only local ingredients. A pie contest is the perfect activity for your next family-get together, office party, or a night in with friends. Create some new memories—and recipes—and enjoy a slice (or five) of pie!” –Noelle A. DeMarco, Create & Decorate

“Sounds like fun!” –The Cookbook Man, Sarasota Pelican Press

“Pie Contest in a Box: Competitive Baking with a Soul” –Dan Shaw, Rural Intelligence

“…perfect summer cottage activity. Only thing missing is the pie.” –John Tanasychuk, Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel

“Now it’s your turn to put your pie where your mouth is with this clever pie book.” –Diane Cowen and Greg Morago, Houston Chronicle

“I admit, I raised my eyebrows when I unpacked a new gift item called Pie Contest In A Box…Second reaction: Oh, so what. This could be fun. I think I’ll actually use the contents of the box — score sheets, pie toppers, and ribbons — to liven up a contest this summer for my pie-baking kids, or maybe bring it along for a summer vacation with friends. But the handbook in the box is the part that seems the most useful…” –Rebekah Denn, Al Dente

“This sounds like a really fun way to spend a summer afternoon…” –Donna Maurillo,Santa Cruz Sentinel

“Ooohh one of my FAVORITE new items! Hot off the presses…Pie Contest in a Box! It includes everything you need to host a pie contest — what a fun tradition to start for summer!” –Ann Lopatin Cantrell of Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store in Brooklyn, New York

“Gina Hyams has put together a fabulous fun book/gift: Pie Contest in a Box: Everything You Need to Host a Pie Contest. There’s a great book inside, with recipes, pie history, and plenty of inspiration for gathering your friends together to see who can make the best pie. Plus, ribbons! And scorecards! This would be a great party.” –Shauna James Ahern, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef

“So fun! …So, if you love pie…and parties…and contests…I think this is a fabulous kit to get you started.” –Heather,

“Let’s have ribbons fluttering from the sky to all the great pies out there!…This is a truly fun-filled package, and includes the essential tools such as scorecards, flags to i.d. the pies, ribbons to identify judges, and ribbons to award. It would make a great gift for a baker, or a kid – what fun it would be for kids to hold a pie contest this summer! Or how about a pie contest as a neighborhood block party?” –Dorothy Reinhold,

“…could be incredibly useful wherever food markets, block parties, and 4-H fairs thrive.” –Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

“Invite me! To be a judge. My favorite is strawberry-rhubarb. You win.” –Jane Feltes, The Hairpin


Chili Cook-off in a Box Mention in Women’s World

It’s exciting to see Chili Cook-off in a Box start making its way into the world. My husband is amused by the ambiguous grammar of the magazine deeming me an “entertaining expert.”



United Bank Team’s Wild and Wonderful Game Chili

In researching Chili Cook-off in a Box, I’ve been struck by how chili’s appeal transcends politics. Republican golfers love it and anarchist vegans do, too.  Here is a game-based chili recipe that United Bank employees cooked up to win the Chamber of Commerce of the Mid-Ohio Valley‘s Great Bowls of Fire Chili Cook-off in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Commercial loan officer  Lindsey Anderson kindly gave me the scoop.

United Bank employees Lindsey Anderson, Rita Dotson, and Chad Mildren

Gina: Who were the members of the team and what are their jobs at the bank?

Lindsey: [Me, plus] Rita Dotson (loan document specialist), Chad Mildren (regional president), Stewart Powderly (commercial credit analyst), and Bonnie Rice (external accountant).

Gina: How did the team go about deciding on the recipe?

Lindsey: The recipe was Rita Dotson’s with a little twist.

Gina: I understand that someone at the bank hunted for some of the ingredients. Please tell me that story. 

Lindsey: Chad Mildren took the deer last October with his bow on his farm in Ohio. It was an 8-point that field dressed at 190 pounds. He took the front roast to the butcher who mixed in some cow and pork fat into it as he ran it thru the grinder. [The deer] had soybeans, clover, turnips, acorns, and browse for his main diet. Chad always hangs his deer at 36 degree temperature for 7 to 10 days in a cooler before cutting up. This makes the meat tender and takes the game taste out of it.

Gina: How many chili cook-offs have your team members entered and won?

Lindsey: This was our first cook-off.

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

Lindsey: If you operating in a team, choose your strongest chef, and stick to one recipe.  However, do not be afraid to make some small adjustments to the recipe.

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

Lindsey: When the heat from spices doesn’t overwhelm the flavor and let it set overnight so the ingredients will blend. If someone wants it so hot it will bring tears, then have a side bowl of jalapenos, habaneros, and a bottle hot sauce or red pepper flakes.

Gina: Lastly, can you say why you love chili?

Lindsey: It warms you up and is a GREAT comfort food served with oyster crackers and sides of peanut butter or grilled cheese sandwiches.

Bonnie Rice and Stewart Powderly at the Great Bowls of Fire Chili Cook-off in Parkersberg, West Virginia (photo by Jill Parsons)

United Bank Team’s Wild and Wonderful Chili

By Rita Dotson

7 pounds elk and deer blend with 1 pound pork

5 pounds ground chuck

3 very large onions (chopped)

4 large green peppers (chopped)

5 tablespoons Tone’s Chili Powder

5 tablespoons Kroger Dark Chili Powder

1 package Mesquite chili seasoning

1 tablespoon pepper

1/4 cup sugar

3  6-pound cans tomato sauce

4  28-ounce cans petite diced tomatoes

5 – 10-ounce cans RO-TEL Original

4 – 52-ounce cans light red kidney beans


This recipe makes approximately  7 to 8 gallons. Use two (2) roasters. Put half of everything in each roaster.

Fry meat until almost done, then add onions and green peppers. Onions will become translucent, at this point add seasonings.

Salt to taste after all ingredients are added and has simmered for a short time. If you want more spices, add more to your taste. Some people like mushrooms added.

Lindsey says, “This is a recipe you can ‘have it your way,’ but this way is a WINNER.”

Merry Christmas from the Chili Champs

Best holiday card of the year. My new chili champ friends signed it: “God is great, Tequila is good and Chili Cooks are Crazy!” I’m honored to publish George’s winning traditional red chili recipe in Chili Cook-off in a Box.

Chili Interview: Debbie Eiland Turner, Chili Champ, Judge, and Publisher

Debbie Turner judging chili. She’s laughing in this photo because when she smelled the chili, she got some on her nose.

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

Debbie: I never have tracked the number of cookoffs I have been a contestant in, ran the judging or judged. But to come up with an estimate I figured since I start cooking in the summer of 1983 and an average estimate would be 30 events a year, that makes it well over 800 events. I am an unusual chili cook since I cook in all three of the sanctioning bodies, Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI), International Chili Society (ICS), and the Tolbert group, which leads to proud achievements with each group. Winning major events like the Tolbert Texas Ladies State Championship, the CASI Southwest Open Championship, and an ICS Last Chance Cookoff were very memorable, along with the two second place wins at the Original Terlingua International Chili Championship. But what makes me most proud is to be able to say I can hold my own in competition in any of the three sanctioning bodies cookoffs and I have chili friends across the country.

Gina: Who taught you to cook chili and how did you get involved with cookoffs?

Debbie: I’m a native of Dallas, Texas, where I grew up. My Mother did cook chili, but a very mild version of what I even cook at home. My Mother and Grandmother were good cooks and I enjoyed helping them and learning, so although not a gourmet cook, a good cook.

I worked with computers in my working years, from keypunch operator (dating myself here) to eventually becoming the manager of a computer department for a small oil company. I discovered chili cooking from a fellow employee. She had moved to Dallas from Houston. She was single and had competed in chili cookoffs in Houston and needed someone to go to cookoffs with. I went to one, met some great people, went to a second cookoff, saw the same people again and decided it would be a fun thing to do.

After I had been cooking three years, I met my husband (not a chili cook but former team sponsor) at a chili cookoff that neither of us really wanted to be at, but after ten years of being single, I married him after six months. I told him I would give up my job where I was happy, move from Dallas and my family, but I was not going to give up chili cooking. Twenty-five years later, we’re still together and I’m still cooking chili. He does not often cook competition chili, but participates in the showmanship competition and enjoys giving chili away to the public.

When we married, I quit work since my husband had taken an early retirement and we traveled across the country in an RV. Over the years, I’ve cooked chili in 43 states, two Canadian provinces and two Mexican states. Trying to cook in all 50 states, but most of the ones left are on the Northeastern part of the country where they don’t have many and it’s a long way from Texas.

Gina: What role does showmanship play at chili cookoffs? What did your husband do that won him distinction this year?

Wayne Turner dressed as a Whoopie Pie. Photo by Jim Stoddard.

Debbie: In the beginning of chili, before we had all the rules we do now, showmanship was part of winning. The judges walked around and tasted your chili and you tried to convince them yours was the best by telling them stories or putting on a show to tell how good they were. Now it has evolved into a separate judging. Not all cookoffs even have showmanship judging anymore since cooks have gotten more serious about winning chili and it takes time, effort and money to put on a good show.

Show was kept around to have something to interest the public who attended cookoffs, but in comparison to the 70s and 80s, it has just about died out. Just watching a bunch of people standing around outside stirring their pots of chili is pretty boring. Showmanship judging runs for one to two hours at least 30 minutes prior to or after the chili is turned in so you can be concentrating on your chili in the critical last minutes before turn in.

Wayne Turner's Brain Hat. Photo by Jim Stoddard.

This year my husband competed in One Man Showmanship. There used to be only one category at Terlingua, but to encourage more teams to show and give the smaller teams a chance to win, there are now three categories Open (as many as you want on the team), Limited (four or less), and the One Man Show. Over the years, we did show together but the more involved I got, the more likely he was to do show by himself. Not being a cook, he gets bored at cookoffs sometimes and LOVES, make that NEEDS attention, and showmanship allows him that outlet.

Since this was the 45th year, he pulled out several of the old show programs and every 30 minutes changed costumes and games. He started with our original show, where you tossed items that might be in a pot of chili into a cast iron pot on the ground. Next he changed into his Fart’ O’ Meter costume, checking for excess gas on passers by.

The third was a costume change into a giant Whoopie Cushion. You may see a theme here, eating chili and drinking beer often leads to excessive gas. The final costume (and by this time he was hot from the costume changes and work) he just took off his shirt and wore a western hat without a crown on top of a plastic skullcap that looked like a brain. That just was to shock people.

At various times during the two hours, he has a puppet goat on strings named Gertie and challenged the public to made Gertie dance. He also had a leftover Halloween prop, a five-foot Frankenstein who played music and danced. If the public participated with him in any of his actions, they got to choose a toy as a prize.

The criteria for show is theme, costume, audience participation, and audience appeal.

Gina: What’s the difference between competition chili and eatin’ chili?

Debbie: With competition chili, you are trying to “wow” a judge in one bite instead of eating a whole bowl. Because of that, the chili is often heavy with spices. That does not mean hot with spices, but more spices you would normally use. An average competition chili might use over 7 tablespoons of chili for 2 pounds of meat while an eating chili might only have 5 tablespoons. Cooks are also prone to adding more salt to their recipes, especially in hot weather since their judges often have been drinking beer or sodas, which contain a lot of salt.

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

Debbie: If I really knew that answer, I win a lot more cookoffs. But someone once told me, you need to look for a chili with no negatives. Not too hot, not too mild, not too thick, not too thin, have no flavor that overrides the others, but have the flavors blend together.

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

Debbie Turner took 10th Place at Terlingua this year.

Debbie: I have a saying that I made into a button to give to friends years ago and still believe in it. “Don’t hurry, Don’t worry, Do your best, Forget the rest.” Winning chili is probably at least 95%luck and 5% good chili. At any cookoff I have won, there are people there who have beat me at other events. Also, more cookoffs are lost in the last 15 minutes. That is when the cook does the final taste and thinks it “needs” something. Trust your recipe. The flavors in your chili will change as it cools down. And sometimes your taste buds are off because of what you have eaten or drank or have a cold or hay fever.

If the organization you are cooking with allows it, sign up to judge on the preliminary table. It’s quite an eye opener to some new cooks to taste the number of flavors and styles of there are in a competition. The more you taste chili, usually the better you will be able to distinguish a winning chili.

You have to have a good competition recipe. The one you have cooked at home and all your friends rave about probably won’t do well. Do some research. Go on-line and check out the CASI and ICS web site for their Champions recipes. That will give you a good starting point. Cook several practice pots, your friends will love to share your leftovers. Don’t’ forget to continue to taste the chili as it cooks down. Does it get hotter, the heat go away, the cumin get overpowering, the salt either dies, or intensifies?

Use fresh spices ordered from a spice company, not what you find at your local grocery story. You don’t know who long those spices were on the shelf or how they were stored. Spices deteriorate with time and heat, so store your spices in glass jars in the refrigerator or freezer. Keep them in a cool place when you go to cookoffs. I always keep mine in my RV refrigerator or an ice chest. Don’t buy more spices than you can use in 6 months or a year. Any I have too long are relegated to cooking with at home or when making chili to give away to the public. It’s not bad, just does not have the edge needed for competition.

Use good meat. Stay away from real tender cuts of meat because them have a very short window of time between being done and turning into mush. You want to be able to simmer the spices a couple of hours in the meat and it not have it fall apart. If using cubed meat, cuts like tri-tip, chuck tender or London broil work well. If you cube your meat, try to maintain a consistent size. It will make the chili look better and not have the problem of some pieces done and some tough. And just because you love venison chili or other exotic meat, most judges do not. A good thing to remember is you are cooking for the judges, not for yourself.

Stay consistent in what you do, follow a recipe to the letter, not just a dash of this and a dash of that. And remember that at each cookoff they are probably different judges who like different things. That was brought home to me sharply when at one of my major wins I got first out of 134 cook and the next day using the same recipe, same type meat, cooked in the same manner, I did not even get on the final table out of only 41 cooks.

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

The organizations have similar criteria, but make sure and read the judging sheet and really consider the criteria. There is more to a winning chili than taste. Check out how it looks and smells. It is getting harder to judge now than when I first started since it is now so easy to go on-line and download winning recipes. I say much of the chili is “clone chili” these days. Too many people using a similar recipe with similar spices.

For first time judges, remember, you are tasting the chili, not having it for lunch. You will often be tasting over 15 chilies at one sitting. Not only tasting them, but also cleansing your palate with a cracker, cheese, carrot, or something similar and drinking something. You can fill up faster than you realize. I like to always end with the same palate cleanser before I start judging a new chili. In other words, usually the last thing in my mouth will be something bland like a cracker so I start with the same taste in my mouth for each chili. For some people it will be a sip of their drink.

Please bear in mind, these cooks have spent a lot of time, money and effort to cook their pot of chili and would like you to be as serious about judging it as they were about cooking it.

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

Debbie: I wonder if some of the passion comes from its history. Chili got its start when our nation was expanding. There are plenty of stories about chili on the cattle trails, and later was a common dish found in cafes across the country. Famous people talked about chili. One of my favorites was the humorist Will Rogers who rated a town on their chili and even movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor made the news by having chili shipped to her from her favorite place in Hollywood while she was on location.

We are a competitive society, everyone one wants to be the best or have the best. Chili is easy to make. A favorite food at deer and fishing camps has always been chili and men prided themselves on their own special pot of chili. When you have pride in what you do, that instills a passion to be better than your friends. Not surprisingly, there are more men chili cooks than women and that was especially true in years past.

Gina: How many times have you been to Terlingua and what makes that cook-off so special? I gather it’s a pretty rowdy, festive scene. Can you describe it?

Debbie: I’ve attended the Original Terlingua cookoff every year since 1983, that means I’ve made the trip 29 times. A few things make it special. The fact that only qualified cooks are able to cook mean you are cooking with the best of the best. It has a long history and winning there is the pinnacle of success for chili cooks. You get to see friends from across the country and sometimes the only time you see them is in Terlingua.

Add to all that is the mystique of that part of Texas. It is really hard to explain, it’s almost like being in a different country or time, although over the years progress has crept in. It’s only been a few years since we were able to get cell service down there and we were so excited when a Bank was built in the area with an ATM. It’s still a 2 and half hour drive to the nearest hospital or grocery store in Alpine. So, for this modern world, it’s as close as you can get to the old west.

There are two Terlingua Championships about five miles apart on the same day. I attend the one called the Original Terlingua cookoff and it is a much smaller and milder event than the one down the road at the CASI site. That one is known for their rowdy spectators. They even have set up a special area called Krazy Flats for them and have built a bar in that area of the campsite. The chili cooks camp in a separate section of the site and are not very rowdy at all. In fact, a large number of cooks, on both sides are at in their 50’s and up, so they are not near as rowdy as they were 20 or 30 years ago.

There are not that many motels in the area so most of the attendees camp out at the site. It looks like a large RV park. A lot of alcohol is consumed during the event, so it’s a good thing most people do not get out on the roads. It’s like a small town has risen up, in the desert in the middle of nowhere. People actually begin arriving a week before the championship is held and over the years other events like beans, salsa and barbecue competitions have been added to the event. Those are held on Thursday and Friday and open to everyone, not just qualified cooks.

Different Pods (chili clubs) and other groups of people have parties during the week prior to the cookoff. These have started by Wednesday at the CASI site. The Tolbert site also has parties at different campsites.

Both sites have bands playing at night later in the week. CASI usually only has one band while the Tolbert site has at least two bands a night for three nights. Most of it is country music with lots of dancing around the stage area.

The weather makes it a unique and challenging experience. It’s not unusual to start the day in several layers of clothing, only to start shedding all those layers by the afternoon. A temperature swing of from the 40’s to upper 80’s in one day is not unusual. And then there is the dust. It is the desert, so dust is expected, but sudden wind gusts are more normal than not. By the end of the week, everything you own is covered by a thin layer of caliche dust, kinda of a fine, powdery, gritty dust.

Gina: Do you have any favorite songs about chili or that you think of as being part of a classic chili cookoff soundtrack?

Debbie: Since I started in the 80s, my favorite will always be Gary P. Nunn and the Bunkhouse Band. For many years he was the headliner at the Tolbert site. He still has a following of chili cook fans who follow him at gigs across the state and even country. He even has a song written about chili cooking, called appropriately enough, “The Chili Song” from his For Old Times Sake album. Since Texas and chili are synonymous, other favorites are “What I like About Texas” and “London Homesick Blues” from his Home with the Armadillo album.

In the early days of chili, part of the enjoyment of cookoffs was sitting around the campfire and listening to singers playing their guitars and singing the favorite tunes or ones they wrote. Kent Finlay, of the Cheatham Street Warehouse fame (a place new singers got their start), has a great song about chili, don’t know if it was ever recorded, the only time I ever heard it was around chili cookoff campfire.

Gina: What’s the history and editorial focus of Goat Gap Gazette? How did you become involved with the publication?

Debbie: John Raven started the publication in January 1974. At that time, there was only one chili organization, although by the next year, a group of cooks headed up by Carrol Shelby split off from the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) and became the International Chili Society (ICS). The Goat Gap was not directly associated with either organization although, being published in Texas was more likely to report on activities of the CASI group.

In April 1975, Hal John Wimberly, a newspaper writer in Houston, Texas took over / purchased the paper and changed it from a newsletter style format to a tabloid sized newspaper. He continued the paper until his death in September of 1982. His wife, Judy Wimberly took over the paper at that time and ran it until her passing in August 1994. At that time, Jo Ann Horton the editor, a freelance writer had worked with the paper since Hal John took it over inherited the paper from Judy. A little over a year she sold it me.

I took it over in January 1996. At that time, it was only published eleven months of the year since there was very few cookoffs in January, so the year began with the February paper. After I took it over, I went to twelve issues a year because times had changed and there was enough activity going on all year long to warrant a paper. Unfortunately, like many large newspapers, the internet and changing chili politics forced me to change from the tabloid newspaper format to a booklet style format in 2009. There was a Goat Gap Gazette website for a few years, but at this time it has been shut down, but hopefully will be back up in the near future.

A combination of decisions lead to me taking over the paper. In 1989 I took over publishing a name, address and information book of chili cooks, called the Cooks Register that Jo Ann Horton had published. Before that, I began contributing short article about my chili travels and other snippets of gossip to the “Hot Flash” column in the paper. So when Jo Ann decided not to continue with the paper, she turned to me. Probably the main reason she did was I had the willingness, time and income to purchase and produce the paper. It is not a money-making job, more like a labor of love of chili history and friends. I have no formal journalism training, but have been an avid reader all my life and enjoy people and history and am very detail oriented, which you need when tracking cookoff listings and winners.

The paper is dedicated to the chili cooks and their friends. With the change of format, it now just reports on Tolbert cookoffs and winners, but subscribers can contact me for information on the other events. It has humorous articles and retains the “Hot Flash” column for more gossip type items. I still report on significant information about the whole chili world in its pages, not just Tolbert related items.

The Tolbert Behind the Store Experience 2011 from Jim Stoddard on Vimeo.

"Chili Cook-off In a Box" by Gina Hyams will be published by Andrews McMeel next summer.

Chili Interview: International Chili Society President/CEO Carol Hancock

Carol Hancok

Carol Hancock is president/CEO of the International Chili Society (ICS). Founded in 1967, the ICS is a non-profit organization that sanctions chili cookoffs with judging and cooking rules and regulations. It is one of the largest food contest festival organization in the world, having sanctioned 200 cookoffs world wide with over one million people tasting, cooking, judging, and having a great time while raising over 91 million dollars for charities. All winners of ICS sanctioned cookoffs qualify to compete for cash prizes and awards at the World’s Championship Chili Cookoff held each year in October.

I am delighted to announce that John Jepson, who won this year’s $25,000 grand prize for his traditional red chili, has agreed to share his winning recipe and cookoff tips in my Chili Cookoff in a Box to be published by Andrews McMeel next summer.

Gina: What are the benefits of holding an ICS-sanctioned chili cookoff?

Carol: The biggest advantage to an ICS-sanctioned event is the opportunity to compete at the World’s Championship Chili Cookoff.  ALL competitors are pre-qualified by being a first-place winner in whichever category they pursue.  ALL sanctioned events are held for charity.  Upon approval by the ICS to hold a sanctioned event (this is done by application and our personal approval), the ICS provides absolutely everything a cookoff chairman needs to hold the event (i.e. ballot sheets, ICS logo judging cups, tips for advertising, acquiring sponsors, etc., a Chief Judge, Chief Scorekeeper, Certified Chili Judges, timing, etc.) This can all be accessed through our website if you need more information.  From a members’ point of view, they enjoy being part of the huge ICS chili family and are proud of the charity dollars that they help acquire.

Gina: Do you have any tips for chili cookoff contestants?

Carol: Follow the rules of the ICS, use the freshest ingredients and high-quality meat and have fun!  If you win, don’t change the recipe that you used to win!  Don’t make the mistake of “sprinkling” powders or adding ingredients without taking note of the changes.  How will you win the WCCC with the same “winning recipe” unless you remember what it was?

Gina: How do you choose your chili cookoff judges?

Carol: Judges are usually invited by the cookoff chairmen – sometimes city officials, restaurant chefs, mayor, etc. It’s always good to have seasoned judges that have participated in other events – they will generally make themselves known.  The ICS is currently offering classes in our new Certified Chili Judges (CCJ) classes.  At some point in the future, CCJ’s will be given preferential position to judge ICS events over non-certified people.  ICS will always accept VIPs, local choices of judges by the organizers, sponsors who want to judge, etc.

Gina: Do you have any advice for chili cookoff judges? How best to pace themselves and what criteria should they use to evaluate the chili?

Carol: Taste is the number one consideration.  We advise a small taste to start, taste as many times as necessary to arrive at your choices and clear your palate between chilies.  Our website clearly defines the judging criteria and details are taught in the CCJ classes.

2011 World's Chili Champion John Jepson

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

Carol: The spices and high-quality meat.

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

Carol: It seems to have established that attitude all by itself.  I’ve never mentioned the ICS without the comment “I love chili!”  Chili is a controversial dish.  There are so many varieties and recipes – hence the very first cookoff in 1967.  Everyone thinks they or someone close to them makes the Best Chili In The World. We invite them to join the ICS and prove it.

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