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Food: Chili Cook-off Brings Secrets and Charity

Rural Intelligence Food

Photo by James Czar

Good chili is easy to make - some ground chuck, maybe pork, a can of beans, an Ancho chile or two – but it takes a special magic to make a transcendent chili. That perfect blend of heartiness and heat, two qualities cherished by “chili tribes” the world over, requires a lot of patience and time. And love, according to Gina Hyams, the region’s own “chili queen.” And she should know. Over the past two years, Hyams (with the help of her foodie friends and chili buffs) has tested several award-winning recipes from across the country. The culmination of all of this tasting (and sweating) is a new book kit that contains within it the many secrets of chili masters. Chili Cook-off in a Box: Everything You Need to Host a Chili Cook-off (Andrews McNeel), Hyams’ second In a Box publication (pie came first in 2011, cookie is coming next month) was released in September. To celebrate the publication, Hyams is teaming up with the folks at The Meat Market in Great Barrington to host a chili cook-off this Sunday, October 7. While the some 20 entries (there is room enough for 30) may not be the work of Texas queens and cowboys, Hyams is practically giddy about discovering the secrets of Berkshire batches and their makers;  she also has a few secrets of her own to share with first-time competitors.

“You don’t need to be intimidated by the competition,” Hyams says, thumbing through the chili “bible” in her lap. “Several have been won by first-timers. Call it beginner’s luck or just darn good chili. And it’s easy to make. Just remember, low and slow. Also, don’t overindulge on the beer, even though the two go hand-in-hand. That was a tip that I got from a lot of champs. If you drink too much, you tend to over salt.”

Rural Intelligence Food

Gina Hyams at home in Housatonic, MA

While a pinch of salt and the right (or wrong) peppers can “make all of the difference in the world” when it comes to perfecting any recipe, Hyams notes that, even after all of her research and many deep conversations (she still gets emails addressing her as ‘ma’am’), no one has yet to agree on what chili actually is.

“You have to have a pretty inclusive attitude,” she says. “In Texas there are literally no beans about it. In Seattle, people, especially vegans, use a lot of hominy and no meat, which in other parts of the country is unheard of. I’ve concluded that the dish is a savory stew and a state of mind. And that everybody is very passionate about it.”

Jake Levin’s passion began years ago in his father’s kitchen. Levin,  the head butcher and store manager at the Meat Market, does not indulge in an ultra-complex recipe. In fact, he tends towards more basic ingredients – onions, garlic, ground beef, a can of tomatoes, a can of kidney beans – and leaves the intricate spices to the cowboys. According to his palette, the key to a great chili is a great foundation.

“I don’t believe in die-hard traditions but I do believe in good, homegrown ingredients. Locally-raised ground beef, big chunks of pork shoulder, slowly braised. I’m a big fan of cowboy food, or, I tend to say ‘mountain food.’ You know, chili is not a fussy food. It’s whatever big, off cuts ranchers had hanging around with whatever veggies were available. So long as everything is fresh and you cook it slow. Then you really get that smokiness, that earthy, raisin-y, chocolate flavor.”

Rural Intelligence Food

Courtesy of the International Chili Society

Or you can just add chocolate straight up. That’s just one of the unique ingredients that will appear in Sunday’s contest, along with seafood, pork, bourbon, poultry, and roasted tomatoes. Because each entry requires a full list of ingredients, the long kept secrets will be simmering for all to see. While letting the chipotle out of the pot is a big draw to the contest, as well as the promise of savory meats, fiery heats (and cornbread and cheese), and a signed copy of Hyams’ kit (available for purchase), she says there is a much sweeter reward than the first-place ribbon. The proceeds of the cook-off go towards Berkshire Grown’s “Share the Bounty” program which provides area food pantries with fresh food from local farms. As winter approaches, the philanthropic goal of the contest is, perhaps, more warming than the hearty bowl itself.

“Yes, contests have a reputation for drawing in men and being macho,” Hyams says. “But they are also known for having a charitable, generous zeal. It makes perfect sense. Chili is a soul-sustaining kind of food.” —Nichole Dupont

The Chili Cook-off
Rural Intelligence FoodSunday, October 7 from 4:00pm to 6:00pm at The Meat Market , 389 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington, MA. Admission is $10 at the door and free for chili contestants.
Everyone who attends the contest will get to sample various chili entries and vote for the best one.
Contestants will need to deliver a gallon of their favorite chili to The Meat Market at 3:00pm on the day of the contest in either a crock-pot or disposable chafing set, as well as provide a serving spoon and a list of recipe ingredients. To enter the chili contest, send an email to that states the type of chili you’ll be entering and your phone number.

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Posted by Nichole on 10/01/12 at 08:32 AM • Permalink