Chili lovers chow down at cook-off

Annual competition attracts thousands, benefits charity

By J.J. Stambaugh
Thousands of hungry Knoxvillians slurped their way through nearly 800 gallons of chili Sunday at World’s Fair Park to raise money for charity, officials said.

An estimated 3,000-plus people paid $10 each to sample 31 different recipes at The East Tennessee Chili Cook-Off, an annual fundraiser for Second Harvest Food Bank.

Many of the 31 teams were sponsored by local businesses, while others were put together by groups of friends who wanted to compete for the trophy and bragging rights, said Second Harvest Executive Director Elaine Streno.

“This has just been a grand slam,” Streno said. “We’ve had double the attendance we’ve had in past years. … We’ve had so much support from the community for the economic downturn, but we can’t keep up with demand, which is up 40 percent from last year.”

Armed with beans, meat and other staples donated by Bush Brothers and Kroger, some of the teams began assembling at 6 a.m. Many came armed with secret recipes or specially prepared ingredients that they hoped would give their 25 gallons of chili an edge over their competitors.

The team from Laurel High School, for instance, used smoked poblano and pancetta, explained Academic Director Jeff Kilgore. “We smoke them ourselves at the high school,” he said. “It’s a long day, but it’s a great event.”

One of the judges, Dean Hitt, explained that making a good bowl of chili has little to do with the amount of peppery bite and everything to do with the layering of spices.

“We look for complexity in the flavors of the chili,” Hitt said. “Not so much heat. We’ve got some that were real hot, but that’s not necessarily a criteria for good chili.”

The judges ultimately picked the chili prepared by the Knoxville Ice Bears as their favorite, Streno said.

The secret ingredient used by the hockey team’s organization came courtesy of a contact at Wampler’s Farm Sausage who provided a custom-made hot sausage, explained Ice Bears spokeswoman Kim Bittinger. “They made it just for us,” she said.