Hot Competition

Our reporter visits an annual Atlanta chili contest where competitors share their secrets for award-winning chili.

"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."



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