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Chili Cook-Off: Feeling the burn for 29 years
July 09, 2015 Jerry Purvis   

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Photo by Doug Harris/Gering Citizen - Mike Lienemann from Scottsbluff offers samples of his prize winning ‘Prime Pork Chili’ at last year’s Nebraska State Championship CASI Chili Cook-Off at Five Rocks Amphitheater. Lienemann and his friends represented the American Legion at the cook-off. He was happy to wear Husker red while serving his delicious pork chili.

In a time-honored tradition, chili cooks from around the region have a date for July 11 to stir up their best “bowl of red,” hoping to earn a spot in the international competition.

The area around Five Rocks Amphitheater south of Gering is the place to be on Saturday, July 11 for the 29th annual Oregon Trail Days Chili Cook-Off. It’s also the Nebraska Championship event for the Chili Aficionados Society International (CASI). The group of self-described “chili heads” hold their international event each November in Terlingua, Texas, which draws award-winning chili cooks from around the world.
“Four years ago we moved the cook-off to Five Rocks, said Oregon Trail Days Chairman Bill Schlaepfer. “It started in Oregon Trail Park, but it became so popular we just ran out of room.”
He said the new venue at Five Rocks has been a big plus as there’s more room for cooks and more room for parking for people who want to attend.
About 30 to 32 chili cooks show up for the event. Mike Horton of Omaha has been cooking in every event since it first started.
“The cooks love the new location,” Schlaepfer said. “Some of them come out a day early and camp at the Robidoux RV Park, so it’s convenient for them.”

He added the CASI Chili event is like a circuit as many cooks travel to numerous CASI sanctioned events to earn points that will qualify them for the international competition.

Because the Oregon Trail Days Chili Cook-Off is the Nebraska state championship event for CASI, the top three individual winners automatically qualify for the international competition. And the top 10 finishers from Nebraska also qualify.

Cooks compete in any or all of four categories. CASI chili is sauce and meat – no beans, no filler, and no nonsense. The open bean category includes any dish with beans, from barbecue beans, black bean chili, traditional ham and beans, white chili or anything else. The green chili category is a cook favorite, made from green chilies and pork and can run anywhere from spicy to eye-watering. The open beef category is any cut of beef, cooked any way the cook wants. Past entries have included brisket, steak, and prime rib.

Entry fee for the event is $3, which includes a ticket for voting for the People’s Choice Award. Entry fees are used for the costs involved in operating the event, including some 12,000 individual spoons and cups used for tasting.

Schlaepfer said the cooks start showing up Saturday at about 8 a.m. After a 10 a.m. cook’s meeting to go over the rules, they spend the rest of the day cooking their best “bowl of red.”
“It’s more than just a cook-off,” he said. “It’s a fun time for the cooks because there’s a lot of camaraderie. They compete, but they have fun doing it.”
The cook-off opens to the public at 1 p.m. The band “Loaded Dice will provide the music and there will be a beer garden. Public tasting starts at 3 p.m. after all the entries are turned in for judging.
“I recommend people be here early,” Schlaepfer said. “By 4 p.m., the chili’s all gone. People vote for their favorite to determine the People’s Choice Award. A lot of the cooks like to win that one, as it’s for bragging rights.”

Other CASI awards categories include showmanship and a juniors’ cooking division.

Looking ahead, there could be a new barbecue division coming up. The Gering City Council approved a grant to fence the cooking area at Five Rocks. Schlapefer said that with a fenced-in area, he wants to start a regular barbecue division next year. The area allows cooks to stay with their entries overnight and be ready for judging on Saturday.

“The current open beef category will become the barbecue division,” he said. “It’s an entirely separate event and judges have to get special instruction to qualify for judging.”
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