Brian Jacobson

Burning hearts and sharp tongues vie for a higher state of bean

By - Apr 1st, 2007 02:52 pm


The definition of what makes the best chili – or even just a great chili – is always in dispute. Mostly, the disagreements are over a few particular ingredients and the level of capsaicin (or heat) warranted by any number of chili peppers or powders. On the national competition level, winning recipes posted by the ICS (International Chili Society) in the past two years used a combination of eight different chili spices per pot.

No doubt, chili can be a serious business. But from the sounds of the local contenders in this year’s WMSE 5th Annual “Rockabilly Chili Contest,” it’s all in fun.

“I like challenges,” says Glenn Fieber, owner of Solly’s Grille. “It’s a fun thing and great exposure for a good cause.”

“There’s so much enthusiasm there,” says Sarah Kordus of Koppa’s Fulbeli Deli. “It meant a lot to me and it was for a good thing.”

“We all love food,” says WMSE radio host and contest starter Richard Stuntebeck, “and this is a great way to get exposure for the radio station and for the restaurants.”

As the conversations with four of the 30-plus participating chefs wear on, however, some spirit of the showdown begins to slip out.

“Yeah, I really would like to win,” admits Stacy Stangarone, owner of Annona Bistro. “I have a twin sister, so I’ve always been a competitive person.”

Almost everyone has a gimmick or touch of flair planned for the Sunday afternoon event that again promises to pack the Harbor Lights Room of downtown Milwaukee’s O’Donnell Park. Some will offer buffalo as their meat, while others top their chili with a shot of Jack Daniels. Some employ chocolate and a squirt of vinegar, or abide simply with sides of cornbread, cilantro and sour cream. Stangarone’s recently developed veggie chili combination “is a riff on sweet potato and black bean.”

Kordus insists that the three kinds of specialty sausage made at Koppa’s on Milwaukee’s East Side and two different kinds of bean were paramount to their Meat Category victory last year. Solly’s will use chorizo and just enough poblano pepper for “a happy burn.”

Gene Gallistel of Riverwest Co-op was on the team that won best veggie chili last year and thinks that their red chili sauce – which is not tomato-based – contributed to their win.“It’s just slightly spicy and slightly sweet. We’re working from three separate recipes and cooks, so we pick and choose from that. Even though it’s the same base, it’s unique each time,” says Gallistel.

And one entry might even contain alligator meat, according to WMSE’s Stuntebeck.

This speculation began in January, when many of the interviewed contestants, organizers and chiliheads partook in another large contest held to raise money for Camp Heartland at Serb Hall. Many participants in the upcoming Rockabilly event also participated in the Heartland chili event, which made it a kind of spring training scouting report.

It also gave some the extra chance to gauge audience preferences and adjust accordingly, which can be key to winning the People’s Choice award. Some of the Rockabilly entrants are stalwart repeaters, but over half of the expanded field is new this year – adding some interesting variables to the mix.

Some entries will use a scotch bonnet pepper in their ten gallon pot, while others prefer habanera and still more trust the jalapeno. Several chili entries remain rather faithful to the open-range recipes of the Southwest (meat and spices only), while others come closer to “5-Way” or “Cincinnati” chili (similar to the historically- and thematically-related Green Bay’s Chili John’s or Milwaukee’s Real Chili style). The latter style would be disqualified, however, if they included noodles.

Noodles were first found to be added to recipes such as “Wisconsin Chili” during the Depression, when stockpots of the stuff became whole meals to family and friends. While these variations may remain dear to many a Wisconsinite’s heart, it will not be found during the contest. Both pasta and rice is forbidden from active judging eligibility at Rockabilly; disqualified due to its filling nature and unwieldiness in the small sampling bowls provided.

“[Disallowing pasta] evolved early on from the judging process,” explains Stuntebeck, who was encouraged to foster the tasting event by fellow aficionado and WMSE radio station boss Tom Crawford. “It’s a lot to eat after the 20th bowl.”

Stuntebeck explains that Wisconsin chili (arguably: meat, stewed tomatoes, kidney beans, onion, celery, green peppers, chili powder, noodles) isn’t outlawed completely. It’s just that no one seems to make the often mild concoction.

Another limit for this year, in consideration of the cost outlay needed to afford and provide the ten gallons minimum for the masses, sees only restaurant-affiliated entrants. In upcoming contests, the planning committee may include separate categories or ‘exhibition only’-style recipes that could include Wisconsin’s eponymous bowl of red.

This would open up the doors to individuals not backed by a restaurant who can only afford smaller tasting pots. Stuntebeck says that they even got interest from a House of Corrections cook, but his entry was hampered by this year’s limitation.

What’s extraordinary about the thick brew known as chili is not necessarily the plentiful interpretations or variations, but rather the tenacious effort of the cook to either seek approval from peers or to defend the personal style no matter the criticism.

Both styles work: Kordus’ chili philosophy is one of “I’m sorry you don’t like cilantro, this has got cilantro” while Stangarone visualizes the taste and texture in her head, but then makes sure the recipe is a hit with customers and staff before releasing it. Fieber places his faith on a version of chili that “tastes like what most Americans have come to know and love.” Gallistel believes that while many of the winning elements came from techniques he picked up in the Southwest, it is the alchemistic nature of how a batch develops before game time that will decide how good it will be. VS

Look for a review of the contest around April 3rd on the Vital Source website. I’ll post winning results, anecdotes and descriptions of the sights, sounds, and of course flavors. For details on times and particulars, go to .

Here’s how the contest goes down, and how you should play it if you go:

Early on Sunday, the chefs roll in with their ten gallons, sides and table decorations. Around 11 a.m., the venue opens and WMSE DJs Jonny Z from Friday’s Chicken Shack and Dietrich from Saturday Morning Car Tunes will start spinning the rockabilly music. Entry is $3. Inside the room, individual sampling tickets are $1 each (per 2oz. serving). A cash bar will offer local microbrews and sodas to quaff hot tongues.

Where you go and how you deal is up to you. The best route is not necessarily clockwise or even in a round at all. Pop a Pepcid AC (maximum strength) and hang back a bit as you wander. Scout everything out; it’ll be impossible to sample over 40 kinds of chili so you’ll have to choose a smaller sample set. Ask questions of the chefs or staff. Make new friends.

Entry to the event also gets you two voting ballots, one for meat category and another for vegetarian. Arriving in the middle of the event time may possibly garner the best taste – a pot on a heating element left unstirred offers different tastes from the top helping to the lower regions. Some vendors will use long, shallow pans just for the sake of warming but this can also lead to varying tastes. Clean the palette with ice water or a cold beer often. Grab a cornbread cookie.

While vendors will nervously smile and chat politely with customers, their focus is often elsewhere – watching how others are doing. While nothing has ever come to fisticuffs, previous years have shown some interesting rivalries. So stay for the judging in case there’s a show.

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