Get ready for the East Tennessee Chili Cook-Off
by Gay Lyons
The 2nd annual East Tennessee Chili Cook-Off to benefit Second Harvest, which distributes food to the hungry, is coming up on Sept. 29 from 2-8 p.m. at the Worldâ’s Fair Park. I got an early piece of the action when I was invited to judge a chili cook-off at the Sertoma Center, one of this yearâ’s 40 ET Cook-Off contestants.
The Sertoma Center, which serves mentally challenged and disabled adults, held an internal cook-off to determine which recipe it will prepare at the Cook-Off. â“Chef Walterâ” Lambert of WVLT, Moira Kaye, co-host of the Style show on WBIR, and I were judges. In a room made festive with banners and red and green chili pepper cut-outs, we were seated at a table and given water, oyster crackers, and corn chips as palate cleansers.
As we got down to the serious business of rating the five pots of chili, we were impressedâ"but not swayedâ"by the cheering sections for each entry. We rated each chili in four areas: aroma, appearance, originality, and taste. These may have been the most positively worded rating sheets Iâ’ve ever seen. The three categories were yum, delicious, and scrumptious.
I expected more variance among the judgesâ’ ratings, but there was a unanimous favorite. The winning chili, prepared by the residents of Pepperdine, one of the Sertoma Centerâ’s homes, had an enticing aroma and the right combination of ground beef, beans, green peppers, and onions. It was perfectly seasonedâ"spicy, but not too spicy. We all agreed that it is a serious contender for the big prize on Sept. 29.
Chili appears on a lot of restaurant menus these days, but when I was growing up, I only remember eating it at home. It was a fairly frequent meal in cold weather and was always served with saltine crackers and slices of sharp cheddar cheese. The chili served in a bowl was not the same chili served with hot dogsâ"the only other time we ate chili. Chili in a bowl had beans; chili on hot dogs had no beans.
Preference for one bowl of chili over another strikes me as similar to that for one plate of barbecue over another. I think most of us prefer what we grew up with, which means itâ’s likely connected to where we are from. As with barbecue, there are distinctive regional differences.
Cincinnati chili is flavored with cinnamon, allspice, Worcestershire sauce, cocoa or chocolate and is served over spaghetti. It might also be topped with shredded cheddar, chopped onions and kidney beans. Texas chili is made with cubed chuck or round roast, chili peppers, and no beans. Maybe people living in cattle-rich regions can make chili with roast beef and no beans, but in Appalachia, we used ground beef and threw in the beans to stretch the dish. So I like beans in my chili.
Hereâ’s our familyâ’s basic chili recipe, the one the kids take with them when they leave home. As with many recipes passed down through generations, there is some imprecision in measurement. I donâ’t often specify brand names, but my mother was very particular regarding two brands in this recipe.
Brown two pounds ground beef along with one or two chopped onions. Add one 15 ounce can of tomato sauce and a half can of water. Swish the water in the can to get the last bits of sauce. Add a half jar of Mexene chili powder. Simmer at least 10 minutes. Add two cans of undrained, unrinsed Bushâ’s Best Chili Hot Beans. Swish some water in the cans to get the sauce remnants. Add additional liquid to get the right consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir, heat through and adjust seasonings as desired. Itâ’s not in the family recipe, but I usually add some cumin with the chili powder. Eat it immediately or let it simmer on low heat for a while.
The end of September is the perfect time to make chili or to visit the Worldâ’s Fair Park and sample some chili for a good cause.
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