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Dishing out the heat for 30 years
July 07, 2016 Jerry Purvis   

Read more by Jerry Purvis
Chili has an almost magical quality. Legends in some cultures say chili was first delivered to mankind by an apparition of angels, or maybe one of the saints.

However it arrived, chili and the quest for the perfect recipe has been an American fascination for generations.

The tradition continues in Gering on Saturday, July 9 as Oregon Trail Days celebrates the 30th annual 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 (population 58), which draws award-winning chili cooks from around the world.

About 32 chili cooks show up for the event in Gering. Mike Horton of Omaha has been cooking in every one of them since it first started in 1986.

“We have four or five cooks from Cheyenne who show up on a regular basis,” said Cook-Off Chairman Bill Schlaepfer. “We also have a number of local cooks who are here every other year. Plus we have new people always getting involved in cooking chili. Most of them who have been here usually come back year after year to compete.”

Schlaepfer said the cook-off was first staged in Oregon Trail Park, but it became so popular among cooks and the public, they ran out of room.

So five years ago, the cook-off was moved to the area around Five Rocks Amphitheater, south of Gering. “The cooks love the new location at Five Rocks,” he said. “It’s much cooler and there’s plenty of space for the cooks to set up. Many of them come out for the weekend and stay at the neighboring Robidoux RV Park.”

The area around Five Rocks is also home to the Oregon Trail Days carnival and the mud volleyball tournament, so there’s plenty of parking for people who want to attend the cook-off.

Cooks compete in any or all of four categories. The first is CASI chili. That variety consists of sauce and meat – no beans, no filler, no nonsense.

The CASI chili event is like a circuit as many cooks travel to numerous CASI sanctioned events around the country to earn points that will qualify them for the international competition.

The Oregon Trail Days Chili Cook-Off is the Nebraska state championship event for CASI. The top three individual winners from Nebraska, plus the top three overall finishers, automatically qualify for the international competition. Local chili cook Kyle Haberman qualified last year and competed in the Texas international event.

There’s also a CASI Junior Division for cooks under kids 18 and under. They must be supervised by an adult and the competition follows all the CASI rules.

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 Nebraska Dry Bean Commission awards $500 to the winner of that category. The Open Bean category also helps publicize the area as one of the top producers of dry edible beans in the world.

The green chili category is a cook favorite, made from green chilies, tomatillos and pork. The concoction can run anywhere from spicy to eye-watering. The green chili division wasn’t part of the cook-off when the event was first organized. However, cooks would often make a pot of green chili just for fun while competing in another category. It because so popular among the public, green chili was added to the competition a few years later.

The open beef category is any cut of beef, cooked any way the cook wants. Past entries have included brisket, steak, and prime rib.

CASI chili is the first division to be turned in to the judges at 2:30 p.m., followed by the Open Bean and Open Beef divisions at 2:45, with green chili the last to be turned in at 3 p.m.

“All the cooks are open for public tasting at 3 p.m. after all the entries have gone to the judges,” Schlaepfer said. “I’ll remind everyone to get there early because the chili goes fast.”

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.

“People are encouraged to vote for their favorite chili,” Schlaepfer said. “That’s how we decide the People’s Choice Award. That’s a favorite award among the cooks because it’s the people telling them their chili was the best.”

Awards are presented that afternoon at 5:30 p.m. Plaques go to the top three cooks in each division, with ribbons for 4th through 10th.

There’s another award for showmanship in the CASI division. Anonymous judges visit the booths to observe how a cook decorates his or her booth and “works the crowd” while the cooking’s going on.
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