"I'm a purist," explains Jeanette Hall, offering me a paper cup half-filled with chili at Atlanta's largest annual cook-off, a rollicking fall festival that draws more than 12,000 tasters to Stone Mountain Park, near the city.
Hall points to the dice of beef bobbing in the russet-colored stew and explains that she spent the better part of the previous night hand-cubing 40 pounds of lean eye of round. "It may have given me carpal tunnel syndrome," she says with a laugh, shaking her hand, "but it was worth it."
By this point her husband, Peter, has ventured forth with his entry―a thin, ground-meat chili that pops with spice. "My mother's from India," he explains as I try and fail to catalog the waves of seasoning breaking over my tongue. "She taught me how to blend spices, so I use eight or nine different chiles." Wow. Is it too early for beer?
Come one, come all
Chili isn't a hard recipe to get right. It's probably the first dish that persuaded you to chop an onion in your college dorm kitchen. It has followed you through life and, whether you realize it or not, you've made it your own. Chili may be as common as any food in America, but it invariably reflects the personality of the cook. Always familiar, always different. That's why crowds―from the thousands milling about Stone Mountain Park to the dozens crammed in a family room for a kickoff party―love it.
"It's all about the party for me," says Eddie Havens of the "Savage Chili" team, decked out in a caveman costume and stirring his delicious-smelling stew in a black cauldron suspended over an open flame. "I figure a bowl of chili might happen."
What? No special tricks or techniques? No custom seasonings? Havens cackles and points to the towering loblolly pines overhead: "Just the falling needles." (Sadly, Havens has since passed away.)
The 248 contenders at this competition―the Great Miller Lite Chili Cook-Off―run the gamut. The orthodox discuss their custom blend of red chile powders, the necessity of fresh serrano peppers, and the sacrilege of beans. The creative brag about their secret ingredients, such as kielbasa, cilantro, or―in all seriousness―peanut butter cups. But, let's face it, a lot of folks camp out for the weekend so they can decorate booths, dress up in costumes, and drink beer all day.
And that's fine. All comers, all recipes, all eccentricities are welcome at this event, which is not one of the 600 cook-offs sanctioned by the Chili Appreciation Society International. Free of the stringent rules of official chili competition, contestants here need only prepare a palatable rendition on-site, and in that they succeed largely, often brilliantly. Wade into the sea of visitors, and you constantly hear, "Mmm, good chili."
Directly across from the Halls is a booth bedecked with so much red and white bunting and flapping pennants that it looks like a used-car lot. Here I find "Chuck and the Chili Chicks," the team that took top honors at the previous year's cook-off.
Chief chick Caroline Sisk, wearing a Stetson hat and drinking a celebratory cup of André Champagne, reassures me that "we make good, normal chili―not one of those kooky ones with peaches and chocolate." She has just put the finishing touches on the booth display: baskets of multicolored peppers, bales of hay, and an extra-large bottle of Tums. Behind the display I meet "Chuck," whose real name is Frank Nash, stirring a 10-gallon batch with what appears to be a rowboat oar. "You've got to keep stirring or it'll burn. This here's my recipe," says Nash, handing me a cupful. "I've been making chili since I was 18. I think the first time was when I helped my parents, and after that it just became mine."
I try his sample and find it reassuringly straightforward―ground beef, beans, canned tomatoes, but with a fantastic slow-release spice. "Good, huh?" asks a smiling Nash. "The trick is using fresh serrano peppers. The flavor and heat are totally different from other chiles; it gets you in the back of the throat."
Many contenders at this cook-off talk up the unique "back heat" (meaning it registers at the back of the throat) of the serrano pepper. "I use only the red ones," claims Don Appleby, pulling me over for a taste of his Nacho ¬Mama's Chili. "See? I pick through the bin at the supermarket to find the ripe red ones. They have better flavor."
Appleby―who claims bona fides as a "card-carrying member of the International Chili Society"―has me read through his informative three-ring binder. In it, he covers the histories of both capsicum cultivation and chili preparation. Finally, I have a taste of Nacho Mama, which is thick with beef and sausage, heady with spice, and sweet with peanut butter cups. Citing the historic precedence of nuts and chocolate in Mexican stews and moles, the erudite Appleby mixes crumbled Reese's into his chili.
After this I take initial comfort in the offerings of Heath Girod, whose white-bean Albino Chili looks tame.
"I've got five minutes to get to the judges or I'm disqualified!" exclaims Girod as he hurriedly fills a Styrofoam cup. "C'mon!"
As we nudge through the throngs, Girod explains he developed the recipe for his wife, who's allergic to tomatoes. We pass a coterie of women in medieval wench-wear, and others in killer bee costumes, before we leave the shade of the sheltering pine stand for a grassy field bathed in brilliant September sun.
Girod drops off his chili at the judge's tent. I wish him well and step inside to chili judging on a grand scale―scores of tables with hundreds of samples lined up on paper scoring mats.
"It tastes like chili!" shouts judge David Lagneaux to a dozen tablemates as one sample makes the rounds. They nod in vigorous assent. So, what's the alternative?
"Well, there are a lot with cinnamon―like, way too much cinnamon―and a lot of burnt ones," says Lagneaux.
What about the great bean controversy that pits everyone's mother's chili against the beanless Texas varieties? Beans: yes or no? "I'd rather have beans in my chili," Lagneaux avers, "but I don't have to."
Back in the competition area, a long line has formed in front of the flashy Black Gold Chili booth. Texans Ken and Robbie Swart travel the country to compete in both sanctioned and just-for-fun events, and they rack up awards everywhere they go. Their version looks like nothing more than coarse "chili grind" meat in a red gravy. Beanless. Yet the flavor sings with well-modulated spice, ending with a perfect hint of back heat. Ken Swart shares his trick: a couple of slit, whole serranos floated in the pot of chili, then removed.
The crowd mostly ignores Enid Britton, who sits at a plain folding table with her 10-year-old daughter Bre for company.
"Don't you want to come and try my chili?" she calls out, already ladling. "It's wonderful. I make it with turkey, fresh onions and peppers, fresh and canned tomatoes, and beans." I take the cup and help myself to toppings: green onions, sour cream, and corn chips.
The flavor stuns me at first bite. I know this chili. It is my mother's, and I haven't tasted it in years. I almost want to ask Enid Britton for a hug. But first things first―I'm finally ready for a beer.
Editors' note: Here we offer our own chili recipes, which include various regional incarnations. Sample new versions, or let these inspire your own creation.