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Gering celebrates an American original at Chili Cook-Off
July 12, 2012 Jerry Purvis   

Read more by Jerry Purvis

Gering Citizen file photo
Jerry and Sara Arnold serve their secret recipe chili at last year’s Chili Cook-Off event. The couple has been competing at the cook off for many years.

For the past 26 years on the Saturday of Oregon Trail Days, cooks from around the region have come to Gering to stir up an American original – chili.

For the first time, the Oregon Trail Days Chili Cook-Off will be in a different location. This year, the event will be at Five Rocks Amphitheater south of Gering.

OTD Committee Chairman Bill Schlaepfer also coordinates the chili cook-off event. He said the committee decided to move both the carnival and the cook-off to Five Rocks because the events simply ran out of room in Oregon Trail Park.

“We’re expecting about 35 to 40 cooks, about our average number,” Schlaepfer said. “Now we have more room, so even more cooks can participate. We’d be real excited about that.”

Schlaepfer said he’s received lots of calls and interest from cooks who want to compete for top chili honors. One of the longtime competitors is Mike Horton of Omaha, who has entered for his 26th straight year.

The Oregon Trail Days Chili Cook-Off is the designated Nebraska State Championship site for CASI, the Chili Appreciation Society International. The top three Nebraska finishers qualify for the international competition, held in November in Terlingua, Texas.
CASI chili, often called “bowl of red,” is simple: meat and chili sauce with no fillers, beans or other nonsense.

In addition to the CASI chili division, cooks can compete in open bean, open beef and green chili categories.
The open bean category is open to interpretation. Cooks have submitted chili with beans, barbecue beans, baked beans and traditional ham and beans.

The open beef category can be any cut of beef, prepared any way. Past entries have included brisket, ribs and steaks, both barbecued and smoked.
The green chili category was added a few years after the first cook-off. Cooks would often make some green chili, although it wasn’t judged. It became so popular with the fans; it was soon added as an event.

Green chili is a staple of southwest cooking. It usually consists of green chili sauce, usually from Anaheim chilis, with pork as the meat. And the heat factor can vary anywhere from mild to slightly spicy to eye-watering.

Schlaepfer said Ameristar will be providing shuttle transportation from the Gering Civic Center to the amphitheater and back throughout the day. The cook-off event will be set up just east of the amphitheater and will feature a beer garden and food vendors. Entertainment will be provided by a number of artists, including local favorite The Drivin’ Dynamics and Gering’s Justin Hanshew, who appeared on Galaxy of Stars.

Cooks start setting up Saturday at about 6 a.m.. After a 10 a.m. cooks’ meeting, the chili madness starts. The event is open to the public at 1 p.m. and chili tasting starts at 3 p.m. Schlaepfer recommended people get there early, as chili runs out fast, even though most cooks make between three and five gallons of their concoction. Last year, the event went through 10,000 individual tasting cups.

About 5 p.m., winners in each category are announced. Awards are also given for Showmanship and the People’s Choice, which Schlaepfer said is a “highly coveted trophy.” There’s also a junior category for CASI chili cooks under age 18.

Because of the extra space afforded at Five Rocks, there has also been some discussion about possibly adding a barbecue category. Those events usually last two days, as cooks smoke their meat for as long as 16 hours.

“We want to see how this year goes,” Schlaepfer said. “Next year, there’s a possibility for cooks to compete in a full-blown barbecue.”
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