Merced man aiming for international chili title

September 30, 2012 

— The notion of putting beans in chili has been a sensitive topic as long as competitive cook-offs have been around. So this year the International Chili Society is saying: let's do both.

For the first time, the ICS will have traditional red chili and bean-optional chili categories at its 46th world championship event, which returns to West Virginia starting Friday.

Chili purists contend beans are nothing more than filler. Proponents say they certainly belong.

John Jepson of Merced won the ICS traditional red chili world title last year and is entered this year both in that category and the new "homestyle" division that has no restrictions on ingredients.

Jepson qualified for the homestyle division by winning a cook-off in Elk Grove, Calif., in May. So what tastes better: chili with or without beans?

"That's a good question. Geez," Jepson said, taking a moment to ponder it. "They're both great. I can't say I'd like one over the other. If I'm having hot dogs, I’d just go with competition (chili). If I'm just having a bowl of chili, I'll have beans in it. That's the good one for sitting around and eating. I love it."

Adding beans to the competition fare will do little to quash the debate over using them.

"Oh, no. That will always go on," Jepson said.

ICS CEO Carol Hancock said beans of any type are a dominant flavor in chili, which is why they aren't included in the traditional competition.

"You're going to have chili beans instead of chili," Hancock said. "And we're looking for chili in its purist form, which is meat and spices."

About 400 cooks are expected to compete for $55,000 in prizes at the world championships in Charleston, including a $25,000 first prize in red chili. That's one reason the red chili competition is fierce.

"You're using black angus tri-tip beef, which is $6-7 a pound, and you’re buying your spices in small batches from people out in New Mexico, or wherever,” Jepson said. "A two-quart pot of competition (red) chili will cost me way over $50 to make. To win the world's, you've got to have all the best stuff and it’s got to be all together in the right order. No mistakes and a lot of luck."

Making two-and-a-half gallons of homestyle chili with beans will cost Jepson about $20.

"It's just a matter of how far you get into it," he said.

Hancock said the "homestyle" category is a way to bring in new ICS members. And it doesn't just mean adding beans, it’s whatever works.

"For 46 years, we've turned people down who were really excited about cooking chili at ICS-sanctioned events," Hancock said. “But if they put beans in their chili or if they preferred to serve it with macaroni or rice, they couldn’t do that because there are no beans or fillers in competition chili."

Now, "there are no restrictions as to the ingredients."

Diane Lentz of Nicholasville, Ky., travels to compete in 10 to 15 cook-offs a year around the country. In 2010 she won the ICS world title for her salsa.

This year she's competing in all four ICS events, qualifying for the red chili at a regional cook-off in Michigan, green chili in Florida, salsa in Illinois and homestyle in Ohio.

Her homestyle recipe is white chicken chili.

"To me, homestyle is whatever you think your family is going to eat or whatever you grew up with," she said.

A "last-chance" cook-off Friday will enable previous nonqualifiers in the red chili category to get into the finals. The homestyle division, which is limited to 50 cooks, also will crown its winner Friday. The competitions in green chili and salsa are on Saturday and red chili is Sunday.

The championships were held east of the Mississippi River for the first time in 2009 when the event was in Charleston. The past two years the competition has been held in Manchester, N.H.

This year's competition is being held at the same time an annual custom car show is being held just down the block. Last year’s Rod Run & Doo Wop brought in 960 cars - and thousands of tourists - from the eastern United States.

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