BAXTER -- There was no need to bring a spoon or seasonings to the Brainerd Area United Way's 13th annual United Way Chili Cook-off on Wednesday.
Five dollars and a sense of humor were all that was needed to enjoy one of the area's liveliest noon-time social mixers, which doubled as the kickoff to Crow Wing County United Way's fall fund-raising campaign.
Suzette Bush (left), Mark Innes and Judy Chadwick, with the Brainerd-Baxter Lodging Association, were dressed as service station attendants as they served chili to Tom Lund Wednesday. The team stressed that eating their chili would save gasoline at the United Way Chili Cook-off at the Westgate Mall.
The $5 was for chili and a beverage. The sense of humor came in handy when encountering Brainerd-Baxter Lodging Association's cooks in mechanics' uniforms with a sign that promised "Free gas with every bowl of chili."
An appreciation for levity also was useful to chili lovers who stopped at the Blue Thunder booth to chat with baseball team owners Skip and Pam Marr. An inquiry about any secret ingredients in their chili prompted a quick response from a member of their front office.
"You notice Babe isn't around," said Jim Vopatek, of the blue mascot who frequented baseball games this past summer.
The Westgate Mall, site of Wednesday's cook-off, smelled like your mom's kitchen on a crisp, fall Saturday afternoon. The slow simmering aroma of diced tomatoes, beans and your grandmother's secret ingredient permeated the shopping center.
More than 700 hungry customers sampled chili at 59 exhibits at which the cooks competed for awards for costumes, booth decorations and, of course, chili.
Judges for the event huddled at Rafferty's Pizza, where the United Way organizers kindly supplied them with bottled water and antacid tablets. Bowls of chili were passed down the table of judges who evaluated the concoctions on color, aroma, pungency, consistency and taste.
Chili cook-off winners
Corporate: First, Brainerd Blue Thunder; second, Wal-Mart; third, Deerwood Bank.
Nonprofit: First, Sexual Assault Services; second, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency; third, Journey North.
Restaurant: First, Ernie's; second, Culver's; third, Buffalo Creek at Ramada Inn.
Best booth: Brainerd-Baxter Lodging Association.
Best costumes: Crisis Line.
Community Choice Award: Noon Sertoma Club.
The judging experience was an education for those who were used to plain old chili. There was one bowl that tasted strongly of chocolate. Another that was a light green color with no sign of any tomatoes.
Outside of a few dramatic facial expressions the judges went about their business with few comments, so they wouldn't prejudice their colleagues. The strongest judicial opinion that was overheard was after judging was completed and the panel was asked if there were any clear winners.
"There were a couple of clear losers," one judge stated.
Back out on the mall concourse, Richard Hull and Alex Ebertowski offered samplings of their Brainerd VFW chili. This was the eighth year the veterans' group took part in the cook-off.
"Plain, Midwestern chili," is how Hull described his cooking. "Nothing fancy."
Bernie Finch, at the Journey North's booth, explained how the absence of tomatoes resulted in the light color of her church's chili. The chili included chicken, bacon and one secret ingredient she was reluctant to reveal.
"I'm dying to tell you but I don't want it in the paper," the Brainerd woman told a reporter. "But if your wife wants it, I'll tell you."
Jeff DeGeest of the 3M plant in Staples took some starter ingredients from one of his wife's Homemade Gourmet products and "toned it down."
Brian Moon of KLIZ, the Power Loon, added noodles to his chili, a trick he learned in Sheldon, Wis. He called his creation "Moon's Magical Mystery Chili."
Wal-Mart's Linda Downs was cooking chili for the third year. She called upon her 20 years of restaurant experience in her basic recipe, which included steak, onions, corn and black beans.
"It's not a spicy chili," she said.
The mother-daughter team of Marianne Auge (mom) and Angie Hasskamp (daughter), who both work at Graphic Packaging, had a relaxed attitude toward their cooking.
"We don't have a recipe," Hasskamp said. "We just throw it together."
There was no one secret ingredient in the Lakes Area Senior Activity Center's chili, which DeAnn Barry, director, described as "flavorful, not spicy hot."
There was a Creole touch of okra in the chili at the Ernie's on Gull Lake, thanks to chef Wayd Lovaas, who lived in the South for a time.
Paula Cotten, director of outreach for the Heartland Animal Rescue Team, got into the spirit of the day by dressing up as a gray cat, with pink ears, drawn whiskers and a tail. She admitted her costume confused some patrons.
"I've been called a rabbit and mouse and a cat," she said.
Chuck Jones was at the cook-off to do some tasting and said he preferred the more traditional chili.
"Hot enough but not too hot," he said.
Melody Banks said she was a fan of the Lost Lake Lodge chili with smoked cheddar cheese and French sour cream.
Jim and Joann Anderson of Traverse City, Mich., read about the chili cook-off while vacationing on Gull Lake and decided to attend the festivities. Jim Anderson said he was partial to a chili recipe that included steak but his wife was quick to point out that she favored a different one.
"She's always been contrary," Jim Anderson said.
MIKE O'ROURKE, associate editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5860.
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