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Cooks find camaraderie at annual chili event
July 15, 2016 Jerry Purvis   

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Jerry Purvis/Gering Citizen Mike Horton of Omaha is the veteran of the Oregon Trail Days Chili Cook-Off, competing every year since the first event in 1986.

Although chili cooks are a competitive sort, they’re all one big family when they arrive at the numerous cook-offs where they participate.

Dustin Ludwig, who lives outside Torrington, Wyoming, has been competing at the Gering event for about eight years. About four years ago, he was joined by assistant and friend Trevor Swarm of Cheyenne and developed the theme The Chili Lab. They can usually be found wearing white lab coats and goggles.

“This year we’re competing separately because we wanted to try out chili with different ingredients,” Swarm said. “We’re both cooking in CASI red chili and bean categories.”

Ludwig agreed, saying Trevor was such a wellspring of ideas, he needed to be cooking himself.

The Oregon Trail Days Chili Cook-Off is the Nebraska championship event for CASI chili, sponsored by the Chili Aficionados Society International. The winners qualify for their international competition, held in November in Terlingua, Texas.

The Chili Lab team qualified for CASI international competition weeks earlier with a win at the Wyoming State Championship at Chugwater. However, they only compete in the two events.

“The camaraderie is a big part of the event,” Swarm said. “It’s fun to get to know the other cooks and enjoy the day.”

Ludwig, whose name tag reads “Lead Researcher” for The Chili Lab, said he also enjoys the fellowship shared with the other cooks.

“All of them are great people,” he said. “We all seem to be cut from similar fabric and we share our knowledge about cooking. We just have a great time while we’re here.”

Ludwig said he also likes the CASI competition because the group is very active in charitable work. By being a cook, he’s helping some good causes in the community.

This year, the local cook-off was supporting Skipper’s Cupboard, which serves as a pet food outlet for families in need.

Also cooking was Scott Harris of Scottsbluff, who represents Pepe’s Pod, the local non-profit chili cooking group. Along with his wife Linda, they work with the Oregon Trail Days Committee to stage the event. CASI, the sponsoring organization, is involved in providing scholarships and building schools in neighborhoods that need them.

With his wife Linda cooking green chili and son Rylee competing in the CASI junior category, the family had an active day of chili cooking.

“We’re all a big, extended family,” Harris said. “We’re all involved for the same thing to help some charities help the community.”

Harris has been involved with the event for about 17 years, but he said the real “celebrity on-site” was Mike Horton of Omaha, who has cooked in all 30 years of the Oregon Trail Days Chili Cook-Off.

Through competing in cook-offs in the Omaha area, he ended up on the list that got him invited the inaugural Oregon Trail Days Chili Cook-Off event in 1986. He’s been at the event ever since.

“I came out for the challenge of another cook-off in the state,” he said. “I’ve won enough to make it a challenge, but it’s still a lot of fun.”

Over the years, many of his friends have asked to come along and get recruited to help out. They also serve as the first tasting team before the chili is done.

Horton has also competed in Wichita, Tulsa and Reno with the International Chili Society. He’s won the Oregon Trail Days event 15 times and has competed at the CASI event in Terlingua 11 times.

He added that a cook has to know what local people like in their chili, and then adjust accordingly. In California, chili leans toward a chicken background. Cincinnati chili, usually served over spaghetti, has cinnamon as one of the ingredients. For the Gering event, Horton uses 17 different spices in the finished product.

“You try to figure out what the public and the judges like, but then just decide to cook what you like,” he said. “It usually works out better that way.”

There were 635 people 12 and over through the gate. Seventeen cooks competed in CASI chili (along with three in the CASI junior category, 20 in the open bean category, 15 in green chili, and nine in the open beef category

The top 10 winners in the CASI category were: Kyle Haberman, Mike Dallas, Tim Gonzales, Dave Klinkhammer, Pat Moorhead, Mark Brooks, Michelle Dallas, Scott Harris, Susan Arnold, and Mike Horton.

In the Open Bean category, the top 10 were: Mike Dallas, Scott Harris, Kyle Haberman, Jerry Arnold, Kenny Libsack, Mike Adkins, Jeff Bruner, Matt Arnold, Dave Klinkhammer, and Mike Horton.

Dave Klinkhammer took first place in the Open Beef category, followed by Scott Harris, Mark Brooks, Chris Fries, Kyle Haberman, Terry Melvin, Kevin Kissler, Jerry Arnold, and Mike Bruner.

Top 10 in the Green Chili category were Mike Dallas, Dave Klinkhammer, Michelle Dallas, Trevor Swarm, Lisa Keller, Mark Brooks, Tim Gonzales, Pricella Lopez Brew Crew, Bert Flores, and Dustin Ludwig.

Forrest Graves placed first in the Junior CASI division, followed by Rylee Harris and Mia Arnold.

Dustin Ludwig won the Showmanship Award for The Chili Lab. Scott Harris of Hot Trottin’ was second and Jerry Arnold in third for Prairie Fire.

The People’s Choice Award went to Lizzie Gray and Bert Flores.
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