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Survival is about much more than existing. Part of survival is having fun, and I don’t know about you, but I love cooking, I love cooking for other people, and I love sampling other people’s cooking. A cook-off is a perfect opportunity to do all three.

I really like chili cook-offs in the fall, when the mornings are crisp and the evenings still warm.

Who to Invite

Invite both cooks and non-cooks – you need impartial judges for those who are competing. You should have between 3 and 6 competing chili cooks and at least one judge more than cooks, so you will have a maximum of 13 people (including yourself!). More than that and it stops being fun and starts to become work. Consider the size of your home, how many power outlets you have for the crockpots of chilis, and table and seating space.

Set the Scene

Tell the chili-cookers to bring a finished pot of chili – enough for everyone there to have at least half a serving (remember, there will be more than one chili) plus enough for the judges, in a crock pot to keep hot, and with a ladle for serving. Unless you have a professional kitchen set up to handle 3 – 6 cooks, you don’t want them all showing up with raw ingredients and spending 2 – 6 hours (or longer!) in your kitchen cooking and leaving you the mess to clean up afterwards.

Pick a time of day so the cooks all have time to complete their chili recipes.

Pick entertainment that goes well with chili. Some people think that’s football, but not everyone is a sports fan. Music, storytelling, or movies are also excellent entertainment choices.

Ask the non-cooks to bring things like shredded cheeses, corn chips or tortilla chips, cornbread, chopped salad, beer, wine, sodas, sour cream or other favorite chili toppings or sides. They can also bring plates, bowls, glasses, and flatware – disposable or washable, although washable is more eco-friendly.

What You Should Provide

You are providing the location, the electricity for the crockpots of chili, table space, judging materials, and entertainment. Make or buy a trophy or ribbons to award the winner.

Judging materials can be as simple as blank paper and pencils or as elaborate as a pre-printed checklist and pencils; “sampling bowls” – shot glasses or small pinch bowls for the judges to taste the chili; and tortillas or crackers to eat between samples to cleanse the palate between samples.

How to Judge

Set the crockpots up in a row (numbered, so they are anonymous – or as anonymous as possible among friends) with the sampling cups (one for each judge at each crockpot – so a minimum of 12 or maximum of 42!) and bowls of tortilla wedges or crackers. Give all the judges (the non-cooks!) pencil and paper. The judges get 5 minutes per crockpot to sample and judge each chili. They can confer with the other judges if they want, but the judging should take no longer than 45 minutes total. While the judges are judging (in the kitchen, perhaps?), the cooks are in another room being entertained.

Once the judging is done – the odd judge out tallies the votes and they all go to the room where the cooks are to announce the results. The winner gets the trophy/ribbon and gets to talk about the chili they made and to share a secret ingredient or tip. The judges who voted for it can explain why they thought it was the best chili.

After the Judging

Everyone gets to get themselves some chili and top their bowls with the toppings the judges brought and enjoy the entertainment. At the end of the evening (and it’s usually an evening event since the cooks made chili all day), leftovers are bagged up for people to take home and clean up commences. And probably plans for the next chili cook-off are made.

This can also be done with soups and stews, pies, casseroles, or other one dish foods. It's a great way to get face time with people, and to learn new recipes. It's friendlier than professional cook-offs and much friendlier than state fair competitions. Pie day cook-offs can be loads of fun if there are enough people to compete in several categories (entree pies, sides pies, salad pies, sweet pies, outside the pan pies...).

Here are three of my winning chili recipes. I have included my secret ingredient(s) in all of them. I don't like my chilis to have too many scoville units, prefering them to be flavorful and mild or even extra mild, but I will ramp up the scovilles when competing. I don't use pepper sauces or capsaicin essenses to artificially ramp up the scovilles, either. I'm sensitive, but not allergic, to capsaicin, but too much and my mouth breaks out in blisters, so I don't use it in chilis I will eat and I don't judge chili contests. My children will warn me if a dish is too spiced for me to tolerate, and some of my friends do so, as well, but sometimes I take my chances.

If you get your mouth scalded by a high scoville rated dish, the best methods I've found for relieving the pain are: vanilla ice cream, full fat milk, white cane sugar, flour tortillas in pretty much that order - hold the relieving food in your mouth as long as you can. I usually spit out the food until my mouth stops burning, then eat/drink what's left until I feel better. If you swallow the scoville tainted food, you're just setting yourself up for more pain later.

Dragon’s Breath Chili serves 16

Don't be intimidated by the lengthy ingredient list, it is worth every morsel. This chili has won more chili cook-offs than I can count

2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons bacon grease
6 rashers bacon, crisped and crumbled
2 red bell peppers, diced (about 2 cups)
2 jalapenos, minced (about 2 tablespoons - optional, I use half this amount in chili I will eat)
3 Anaheim chiles, roasted, peeled, chopped (optional, I don’t put it in chili I plan to eat myself, but use it for others because they like it)
3 poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, chopped (optional - I don't put it in chili I will eat)
2 yellow onions, diced (about 2 cups I prefer Vidalias and will freeze some in season just to have them come chili season)
1 entire head of garlic, minced (about 1/4 cup)
1 pound boneless chuck, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch cubes or coarse ground
2 pounds ground buffalo or beef, coarse grind
1 pound coarse ground ostrich or turkey
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon dark espresso powder
2 teaspoons hot paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dark cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups tomato sauce
1 cup tomato paste
1 small can petit diced tomatoes
12 ounces lager beer or ale (I prefer ale)
1 cup chicken stock
2 (15.5-ounce) cans pinto beans, with juice
1 (15.5-ounce) can each dark red kidney beans and white kidney beans, with juice
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
1 cup shredded Cheddar


In large stock pot over high heat, add butter and bacon grease. Add bell pepper, jalapeno, chiles and onion and cook until caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and saute a minute longer. Add chuck and brown. Add ground beef and turkey to brown and stir gently, trying not to break up the ground beef too much. Cook until meat is nicely browned and cooked through, about 7 to 10 minutes. Add in the rest of the seasonings and cook for 1 minute. Add in tomatoes and stir for 2 minutes. Stir in beer and chicken stock. Add beans, lower heat and simmer for 2 hours. Stir in the Cheddar until it melts and serve.

Racy Chili serves 5 - 6

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 poblano peppers, seeded and thinly sliced
2 pounds coarsely ground beef (chuck or sirloin)
1 medium onion, chopped
3 to 4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons grill seasoning
6 -8 dashes Wine and Pepper Worcestershire sauce
2 chipotles in adobo sauce, chopped, plus 1 tablespoon of the sauce
1/2 cup steak sauce
1 cup beer
1 cup beef stock
1 (28-ounce) can crushed fire roasted tomatoes
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
3 tablespoons dark espresso powder
2 scallions, chopped

Grill seasoning:

1/4 cup salt
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon black pepper, coarsely ground
1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon turmeric

Mix together and pulse in a blender until well mixed. It will be colorful and it will make the chili colorful, too. This makes 1/2 cup - store extra in a tight sealing jar in a dark, cool place.


Heat the olive oil in a nice cast iron dutch oven (enameled is best) over medium high to high heat. When oil smokes, add the sliced poblanos and char them a couple of minutes and scoot them off to the side of the pan and add meat. Saute the onions and garlic until transparent, then break up beef and brown it a couple of minutes with the pobalno, onions, and garlic. Season the meat with grill seasoning, Worcestershire and chipotles in adobo. Cook until onions are tender, 5 to 6 minutes more, then stir in steak sauce and beer. Cook beer off for 1 minute then add stock and tomatoes and reduce heat to low. Add in the beans and cumin and simmer half an hour to let the flavors meld. Serve with a scatter of scallions on top.

Chupacabra Chili serves 5

3 dried árbol chiles, stemmed and seeded
1 dried guajillo chile, stemmed and seeded
1 ancho chile, stemmed and seeded
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
Kosher salt
2 pounds trimmed, boneless goat coarse ground or cut into tiny cubes. Can substitute pork shoulder for goat
2 cups dried Eye of the Goat or red kidney beans, rinsed and picked over, then soaked for 4 hours and drained
1 thick slice of bacon (1 ounce), cut crosswise into 1/4-inch strips
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 cup dark Mexican beer
2 cups chicken stock or low-sodium broth
3 tablespoons dark cocoa powder
Freshly ground pepper


In a pyrex bowl, soak the árbol, guajillo and ancho chiles in the boiling water until softened, about 20 minutes. Drain the chiles, reserving 1/3 cup of the soaking liquid. Coarsely chop the chiles.

In a small, dry cast iron skillet, toast the cumin seeds over moderate heat until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Transfer the seeds to a blender. Add the chiles and their reserved soaking liquid along with the oregano, garlic, paprika and 1 tablespoon of salt. Puree until smooth. Scrape the chile puree into a large pyrex dish. Add the goat and toss to coat thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

In a large saucepan, cover the beans with 2 inches of water and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 1 hour; add more water as needed to keep the beans covered by 2 inches. When the beans are just tender but still al dente, season them with a bit of salt and let stand in their cooking liquid for 5 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

In a large, enameled cast-iron casserole, cook the bacon over moderate heat until the fat has rendered, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a large plate. Add the olive oil to the casserole. Working in batches, cook the chile-goat mixture over moderately high heat, turning a few times, until richly browned all over, about 4 minutes. Transfer the browned goat to the plate with the bacon.

Add the onion to the casserole and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and slightly caramelized, about 10 minutes. Add the goat and bacon and any accumulated juices and stir well. Add the beer and boil over high heat until reduced by half, about 8 minutes. Add the chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Stir in the cocoa powder.

Cover the casserole, transfer it to the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, until the goat is tender when pierced with a fork. Add the beans and bake, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, until they are warmed through. Remove the casserole from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

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