Jeffrey Merlot
The chili cook-off

an American tradition

By - Oct 8th, 2010 04:00 am

Just as Harley-Davidson is about as American as you can get, chili is probably the most American dish there is. This weekend, you can get a double dose of both as Milwaukee Harley-Davidson hosts their 5th annual Chili Cook-0ff, with 100 teams offering their own varieties of this down-home dish.

Though the origin of chili is not clear, most sources we’ve researched state that modern-day chili did not surface until some time around the 1880s, when Latino women known as “chili queens” in San Antonio, Texas (historically known as a military town) went around selling cheap meals of chili and beans with tortillas to soldiers in town.

In 1893, the State of Texas set up a chili stand at the Chicago World’s Fair, and from that point on chili became a nationally beloved dish.

By the time the Great Depression hit, chili joints could be found in every American town. In Cincinnati, Macedonian immigrants John and Tom Athanas Kiradjieff  mingled elements of Greek food with this popular bit of American cuisine. They put traditional Middle-Eastern spices into chili and served it over spaghetti topped with a mountain of beans, chopped onion and shredded cheese. Along with their “chili,” their customers also got a hot dog and those little oyster crackers that everyone  puts in their soup. Maybe that’s where we got the chili dog, too?

Nowadays, chili competitions are the stuff that legends are made of. To win one in Texas is equivalent to winning a Nobel prize.  Harley-Davidson’s chili contest began in 2005 with 19 teams. According to the H-D chili cook-off Facebook page, their competition is the largest in the Midwest now and “encourages people from Milwaukee and beyond to showcase their chili recipe as a team, or indulge as an attendee.”

The personalization doesn’t end at the recipes; participants are encouraged to develop a theme for their chili, name it, decorate their booth, and even wear costumes for a chance to win ‘Best in Show.’

If cooking it is not your thing, there will be a chili-eating contest that is open to all — if you have the gastronomic fortitude, that is. TCD is getting in on the action this year, with our very own gourmand Mehrdad Dalamie serving up his smokey southwestern recipe. Oh, and did we mention that all proceeds from the event go directly to Hunger Task Force? So when you leave with a full belly, you can feel good in knowing that your presence helped the community, and that Milwaukeeans in need won’t go hungry.

Harley-Davidson’s 5th-annual chili cook-off is Saturday, October 9th from noon to 5 p.m, located at Milwaukee Harley Davidson, 11310 W. Silver Spring Rd. Attendees can sample chili by paying $5 fee, or by donating a non-perishable food item at the entrance — all food donations and cash proceeds will go to benefit the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee.

Mr. & Mrs. M’s White Chili Recipe (serves 8 – 10)

Today we enjoy as many chili varieties as our imaginations will allow, though mostly we stick to one of the two main types of chili. President Lyndon Johnson was heard to say on at least one occasion that he couldn’t wait to get back home to Texas so he could have a decent bowl of “red.” He was referring to the kind of chili that we all know and love, with red meat and red beans in a rich, tomato-based sauce. But there is also a white chili which is made of chicken and white beans in a mild, blonde sauce. Personally, we love both. If you’ve never had white chili before, try out the recipe below.


1 pound any variety of white beans, soaked overnight in 3 quarts water, drained (but see note below)
2 – 4 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium red onions, finely chopped
2, 4-oz. cans chopped, green chilies (we use one can mild and one can of hot chilies)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1½ teaspoons salt, or to taste
1½ teaspoons dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground, white pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground red/cayenne pepper (we use more, though)
4 cups (about 32 oz.) diced, cooked chicken (we buy the bagged/boxed grilled chicken strips and cut those into ½ ” cubes)
3 cups grated Chihuahua or other Mexican white cheese
1 fresh jalapeño or Serrano chili, chopped (optional, but good – we usually add two or three!)
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon olive oil


Sauté the onion, garlic and fresh jalapeño or Serrano chilies (if you’re including them) in the oil in a skillet over medium heat until the onions are almost caramelized. Add the canned chilies and seasonings (except the salt – save that for last because it will make the beans tough if added right away). Mix well.

Combine the onion-chili mixture with the chicken, beans and broth in a 4-quart Dutch oven or stew-pot and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to a very low setting, just so the contents of the pot bubble slightly, and simmer for 2½ – 3 hours (or longer – until the beans are nice and tender). Add additional water and/or broth, if necessary to keep it fairly loose and flowing. Season with salt to taste.

Serve the chili topped with grated cheese to taste. Goes great with crispy tortilla or corn chips!

Note: You can use three drained cans of beans instead of soaking dried beans overnight. We like to use a can of black-eyed peas, a can of Great Northerns and a can cannellini beans.

Categories: Dining, Mr. and Mrs. M.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us