Lessons I’ve learned from a decade of neighborhood chili cook-offs

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I don’t consider myself a competitive person, but my friends would likely require your largest bath sheet to wipe away tears of laughter if they heard me say so. It’s true there are certain events that raise my blood pressure and get my adrenaline up, like vacation rounds of Celebrity. My husband Brian and I somehow now boast a handful of school- or bar-based trivia championships. Every year, our whole family fires up for my friend Leah’s chili cook-off.

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It started out as a casual affair, as Leah and I both recall it: in her old apartment, maybe eight or 10 Crock-Pots plugged in, our toddler kids stumbling down her long hallway like Andy Capp after a late night. Then, life expands as your kids expand, leading to pre-school parent friends. Leah went to grad school, drafting more chili contestants from her cohort. She and her family moved, so more neighbor friends joined. This year, at their ninth annual contest, Leah is expecting 30 or so chilis, and as many as 100 attendees—if Evite is to be believed. The chilis are numbered, so no one knows whose dish is whose. Notecards are handed out so that the tasters can take copious notes. We’ve never missed one of Leah’s chili cook-offs, or a single submission.

Fuzzy picture of extraordinarily happy chili cook-off winner and his helper
Photo: Gwen Ihnat

Our family has gone through euphoric highs and devastating lows with the chili cook-off. When I was my family’s primary cook, I placed second one year with an inspired concoction I called the Holy Molé (fearing my chili didn’t taste molé enough, I threw in an extra handful of chocolate chips at the last minute. Second place!) There have been agonizing years when we didn’t place at all. But none of us will forget the year Brian won the whole thing, with Bull In A Spice Shop (my title, alluding to his longstanding spice-abuse problem). The only other time I’ve seen him that happy is at the birth of our children. That was five or six years ago, and we’ve been trying to regain the crown ever since.

Nonetheless, it’s a party I look forward to every year: Leah plans it around National Chili Day, which is February 28, but it’s also a good end-of-winter/can’t-wait-for-spring party. Chili is one of those things that everyone, even people who don’t cook that much, thinks they have the perfect recipe for. You just plug in your Crock-Pot and you’re set (although one year all those plugs blew the main circuit, another good reason to have Brian, an electrician, on hand).

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We may not place ever year, but I have observed enough of the winners to know what makes a number-one chili, and a number-one chili party. Heed my chili cook-off words of wisdom.


In a large field of competitors, stand out

There’s a friend of Leah’s who has won the contest more than a few times, and I believe her secret is that she takes things up a notch. With that many chilis, tasters’ taste buds are going to cash out after a while, so you need to be creative. This woman has used salty and umami elements like fish sauce to great success. It’s why Holy Molé did so well, I think: It was the only molé chili that year, maybe ever. Although I believe I still lost to Leah’s friend’s Not Umami’s Chili.

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A catchy name is key

If you have a clever/hopefully hilarious name, this will enable voters to easily choose your selection on the ballot. The title Not Umami’s Chili was not only memorable, but informative. I still maintain that Bull In A Spice Shop was a big part of that chili’s success.

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No one loves the white chili

Standing out, yes. White chili, no. Not sure why. It’s different enough to set itself apart, but it’s hard to create a white chili so good that it’s going to kick the ass of all the other chilis. There’s also something just visually unappealing about it. For whatever reason, white chilis seldom do well in these group ventures. Even vegetarian chilis fare better, says Leah: “White chili never wins. Vegetarian chili won once.”

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Get creative without alienating your tasters

Yes, I just said to stand out. But you can also stand out in the wrong way. I recall a venison chili one year: While some people really love venison, it’s not a widespread crowd-pleaser like a chocolatey molé. The name Bambi’s Mom did not help, from what I remember. Brian’s Root Down had a cool name, but was anyone really jonesing for root vegetables like turnips and parsnips in their chili? Apparently not.

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Photo: WilshireImages (Getty Images)

In a blind tasting, you never know who you’re talking to

“Eww! Who would put chocolate in chili?” exclaimed a friend who was obviously unaware she was speaking to the creator/about-to-be-second-place finisher of Holy Molé. Before you trash someone’s chili (which is poor chili cook-off form, regardless), make extra-sure you’re not actually talking to the person that made it.

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Have lots of sides for people who are just for the party, not the competition

I have friends who come to this party every year and make guacamole. Others bring chip and dip. With that much chili, you’re going to need some palette cleansers, and the party relies on tasters as much as it does on chili preparers.

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Get your voting system in line

Yes, paper ballots are a pain in the ass, allowing for a long tabulation process. They still win out against the year my friends tried to do the ballot on the Survey Monkey app, which everyone then had to download, resulting in a lot of technology snafus. Now I think they just have a computer with the survey on it where you can go and submit your ballot, eliminating the cumbersome tabulation and tech problems. Sometimes it takes a few tries for chili cook-off things to iron out.

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Don’t underestimate the power of a great, straightforward chili

Some chilis stand out not because of a catchy title or an unusual add, but because the chili itself is straight-up amazing. Case in point: Leah’s own classic recipe, which has won this contest twice and she that has graciously agreed to share for readers of The Takeout. Use it to win your own neighborhood chili cook-off. Leah says, “This turns out every time.”

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We’ll see if she makes this again for this year’s contest on Saturday. Next week I’ll have a full report, along with details about Brian’s submission and other creative contestants. Wish us luck: We’ve got to get that trophy back! (Who’s competitive again?)


Leah’s 2x Chilifest Winner

Master spice blend

  • 2-3 Tbs. of chili powder (depends on spice-adverse kids)
  • 1 Tbs. cumin
  • 2 tsp. oregano
  • 1-2 tsp. salt
  • Lots of fresh ground pepper

Main ingredients

  • 1-2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 onion chopped
  • 2 lbs. meat (Leah likes 1 1/2 lb. ground beef plus chopped steak or bulk Italian sausage)
  • 2-3 cans kidney beans with liquid
  • 1 can Amy’s (or Campbell’s) tomato soup
  • 1 can (28 oz.) diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup water
  • Dash of red wine vinegar

Heat oil in a heavy bottom 6-quart pot over medium to low heat. Sauté garlic and sprinkle crushed red pepper over the garlic as it heats up (do not let the garlic brown). Add onions, sauté until soft and starting to caramelize.

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Add meat and brown. Add master spice blend to the meat. Add can of tomatoes, soup, two cans of beans with liquid, vinegar, and water.

Add 2-3 shakes and dashes each of the following: Cajun seasoning, Lawry’s season salt, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, Tabasco sauce, Goya hot sauce, liquid smoke (light touch), and more chili powder.

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Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Cook uncovered 2-3 hours on low heat. Adjust seasonings to amplify the acid balance and the heat.

Notes: Leah says, “I taste in color terms—I’ll add more vinegar, salt, or hot sauce bring out the ‘red/orange’ (i.e, bright & acidic). I’ll add a splash of coffee, liquid smoke, cajun seasoning, sugar, or chocolate to bring out the ‘brown’ or warm umami flavors. Cayenne is neutral and adds heat without changing the flavor. Pro-tip: I start the night before to allow the flavors to meld. I adjust the heat the day of Chilifest to avoid over-spicing the chili.”

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About the author

Gwen Ihnat

Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.