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Cookoff is good time for a good purpose |

Cookoff is good time for a good purpose

OTTUMWA — There are chili competitions where the rules are strict. Entries have to use specific types of meat, certain ingredients are banned, and the least violation can result in disqualification.

This is not one of those competitions.


Saturday morning’s cookoff to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association had one rule: have fun. Competitors laced their chili with honey, bratwurst and other ingredients that would give purists heartburn. But, again, the rule was to have fun.

For Danny Hankins, the chance to compete with partner Jack Reed and Joe Claussen is also an opportunity to indulge in a skill he learned young. Hankins has enjoyed cooking for years, “since I was a teenage boy.”

He has experience in barbecue competitions and some other events, but there’s just something about the relaxed atmosphere of the Ottumwa cookoff that makes it special. “We won’t miss it,” said Hankins.

This year’s entry is a southwestern chili. It includes beans, both black and red, along with some Iowa sweet corn. Brisket forms the meat base for the chili.

A few tents away, Bill Keith is lending his daughter, Claire, a hand. The propane burner and cast iron dutch oven are old school chili tools. “It works pretty well,” Keith said. His own entry was back down the way a little bit, a bratwurst-based entry he came up with one year in honor of Oktoberfest.

Keith had always done a red chili, the kind most people think of when they think chili. But Oktoberfest deserved a different idea, he figured. Brats, some chicken stock and beer for the base. It’s lighter than a lot of chili and, on a warm day like Saturday, that wasn’t a bad thing.

Like many competitors, Keith learned how to cook chili early. Chili is simple to learn. There aren’t many ingredients needed for a good chili. It’s what people add and how they combine spices that make the individual entries stand out. Those seemingly small points are what form a cook’s signature.

“My grandma taught me when I was pretty young,” Keith said. “It’s kind of like spaghetti — everyone has their own recipe.”

Claire entered last year with a white chicken chili. This year’s entry has some bacon and is a more sweet and savory option. For Joel Fye and Paula Thudium’s entry, almost everything in the pot was homegrown.

“We try to do that. We can tomatoes, we do salsa, we grew garlic,” Paula explained. “We won the people’s choice last year.”


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Trophies for the winners reflect the slightly tongue-in-cheek nature of the competition, as well as chili’s roots as a simple dish. Three cast iron skillets were lined up. Gold lettering on a red background indicated first, second and third places, as did the size of the skillet. The people’s choice winner would receive the reverse, red lettering on a gold background.

And, sure, the cooks said, winning would be nice. But with great weather, friends and good chili, rule No. 1 was a lot more important. Have fun.

Category: Skillets  Tags: ,  Comments off
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