Wanted: Chili Cooks

Does your family rave over your chili? 

Whether it’s a family recipe passed down from generation to generation or something you throw together to get dinner on the table, your chili recipe could earn you top honors and bragging rights at this year’s 23rd annual chili cook-off.

This year’s event, which runs in conjunction with Fall Fest, will be held Saturday, Oct. 8, in downtown Holton, and more top cooks are needed to make it a successful event, according to Ashlee York, Holton/Jackson County Chamber of Commerce director.

York said that only a small number of people have registered for the chili cook-off so far.

“It’s a unique opportunity to talk to people in the community and everybody’s chili is different,” York said. “We had someone use elk meat and their garden vegetables in their chili. People have used chocolate, and Bruce and Jenn Shaw of Jayhawk have used their Traeger grills to cook their chili.”

In 2019, several staff members at Holton Dental each made a separate batch of chili that was all combined during the event and won the Judges’ Choice.

The annual event draws past winners and new participants each year.

Bob Lamberson of NAPA Auto Parts in Holton has participated in almost every chili cook-off competition, racking up many honors, and is the self-described “chili master.” 

“I’ve made chili and ate chili, and thought ‘Hell, I’m going to try this,’” Lamberson said of entering the contest that first year. “It’s been fun, and I enjoy it. I had a sweatshirt made that says ‘chili master.’”

Lamberson said he uses the same recipe each year for the contest, and he usually runs out each year.

“Usually about three days in advance I start, like getting the meat ready,” he said. “The night before I start putting in all together.” 

He said half the fun is taunting and teasing his fellow competitors.

“It somebody wants to try it, jump in there and do it. It’s a lot of fun,” he said. 

For local realtor Craig Fox, the chili cook-off has become a family tradition that has included his sons and their grandmothers. 

Fox estimated that he’s participated in the chili cook-off for 14 or 15 years, the first few as an individual. 

“It started with me competing against my brother and some other family members,” Fox said. “My boys (Tracer, Talon and Therron) wanted to take part in the competition as they started to get older.”

Fox started working alongside Talon each year, and then enlisted the help of the boys’ grandmothers, Becky Campbell and Gin Fox, to assist the other two. 

In 2017, Therron and Campbell were the winners of the Judges’ Choice. 

“It has been a good bonding experience with the boys,” he said. “With chili you can throw in so many different ingredients. They’re very secretive about what’s in their chili.”

Fox said that every family has a chili recipe that can be shared.

“Take it to the people and see if it’s something that might win an award,” he said. 

Carolyn Cochren has competed in the chili cook-off for five or six years, and her chili recipe has won several accolades through the years. Last year, she won both the People’s Choice and Judges’ Choice. In 2019 and 2018, she won People’s Choice.

“There’s no set recipe, I just dump stuff together. It’s just a combination of things that came about through the years of making chili for the family,” Cochren said. “My girls urged me to enter the contest, and I just had so much fun with it. It’s such a festive morning. I just enjoy talking to all the people coming around the Square.”

Cochren admits that she “shamelessly begs” people to vote for her chili. 

“That’s part of fun, too,” she said. 

Cochren said her chili is a sweet chili and that she doesn’t change the recipe that much each year for the contest.

“I don’t measure and another factor that might change the taste each year is that I put my own salsa in it,” she said. “Every jar of salsa is slightly different depending on what I have in the garden.”

Cochren said that the public is “very honest” to the cooks during the chili cook-off.

“You can tell if they like it or not,” she said. “We also get a lot of out of town people who are fun to talk to. If there was no prize involved, I’d still do it just because I love to talk to folks.”

Cochren originally entered the competition as an individual, but, as the director of Holton’s Fresh Start Learning Center, she began entering under the learning center’s name as a way to get the center’s “name out there.”

Cochren said she and fellow chili cooker Connie Powls were “hard-core but friendly competitors.”

Powls has competed in the chili cook-off for many years and has won several honors. She was named the overall winner in 2018 and the People’s Choice winner in 2016. She took third place in People’s Choice last year. 

“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of work, too,” Powls said. “I like visiting with people and hearing their feedback. I like it when they appreciate the chili.”

The first year she entered the contest, Powls said she tried six or seven different chili recipes the weeks leading up to the event in order select a recipe.

“Now that I’m kind of known for it, every time we have family visit, they want some chili,” she said, noting that she uses the same recipe each year for the chili cook-off.

The beef used in Powls’ chili is purchased during the Jackson County 4-H livestock sale each summer. 

“I have two skillets going at once browning the ground beef,” she said.

The numbers of cooks who participate each year varies, but Powls said there’s always room for more.

“The more chili the better. We want more cooks,” she said. 

Each cook is required to provide four to five gallons of chili, a large cooker to keep the food warm, a table, serving utensils and an extension cord. Cooks are also in charge of finding a spot in front of a business on the Square to set up their display.

Participants are also encouraged to decorate their table and even dress in costumes. Everything needs to be set up by 10:30 a.m. The Chamber will provide serving bowls, spoons and napkins for the judges and members of the public.

Awards will be given for People’s Choice, Judges’ Choice and Most Creative Site. The winners each receive a prize donated by area businesses. 

Individuals and organizations can register in advance for the cook-off at the Holton/Jackson County Chamber of Commerce website, www.exploreholton.com, or in person at the Chamber office on the north side of the Square. 

The cost to enter is $5 in person or $6.50 online. Participants can also register during the day of the event. 

Registration will begin at 10 a.m. that Saturday inside the Jackson County Courthouse on the first floor.

All cooks must deliver a sample of their chili at the Courthouse by 10:45 a.m. to have it judged. For more information about the chili cook-off, contact the Chamber at 785-364-3963. 

The Holton Recorder

109 W. Fourth St.
Holton, KS 66436
Phone: 785-364-3141

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