Smells Like Bean Spirit

Fiery fun at the 25th Missouri Chili Cook-off and Salsa Competition

Sep 20, 2000 at 4:00 am
There comes a point, after trying eight or nine samples of chili at the Missouri Chili Cook-Off and Salsa Competition, that you start to feel a little funny. More than 100 different ingredients are getting to know each other in your confused stomach when, suddenly, like a slot machine, your body arrives at a perfect combination. You look to the sky, and you know.

The secrets of the cosmos are yours to see. You can look at people and things as if you are standing on a high plateau, knowing this world as it truly is for the first time. You walk in grace and breathe in complete contentment. Among the Buddhists, this is called samsara. This what the chili can do.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the event, and the cost of a chili sample is a wallet-friendly 50 cents. The money goes to the National Kidney Foundation, which has benefited from the gastrointestinal festival each year. (Then again, the cook-off may have led to some kidney or liver transplants.)

More than 100 chilis will be available for the public to try, along with more than 50 salsas. Many of the cooks really have fun decorating their booths, wearing costumes and giving their witches' brews interesting names. "Gone with the Wind" chili is served from a mockup of the Tara plantation; a team of kidney-transplant surgeons cook in gowns and masks. Chili has been served from a coffin and from under the hood of a junked car with the engine removed. A showmanship award is given to the most creative team of cooks.

You may tire of the fart jokes; chilis will be called things like "Gas-n-Go," "Fire in the Bowl" and "Nuclear Explosion." The "Pull My Finger" booth has become a staple.

The crowd is colorful, too, with acres of beer-swilling (beer and chili, not unlike the clownfish and the sea anemone, have a symbiotic relationship -- they need each other) and peristaltically active folk.

The competing cooks may not use beans in the chili for judging, but they do often put them in the chili for public sampling. The competition chili must be made on the West Port Plaza parking lot on the day of the contest, without the use of electricity. (Portable Coleman gas stoves are popular.) Entrants must prepare a minimum of three gallons of chili for public tasting, but many cooks have learned the hard way that they must make something like 20 gallons (Lord save us, please) if they want to last the day and really make some dough for the Kidney Foundation.

You never really know what's in the chili. Cooks have been known to throw in grape jelly, chocolate, flour, Coca-Cola, beer, coffee, roadkill, human bone marrow and even SPAM. Dave Kunkel and Greg Butler decided they wanted to be different, so they chopped up the lunchmeat of Satan and mixed it with the sludge of iniquity. Their SPAM chili has won first place from the judges, as well as the people's-choice award. This year they will ladle out more than 30 gallons of the stuff, one small plastic condiment cup at a time.

The night before the competition, the pair browns many pounds of ground SPAM, hamburger, pork and chopped onions in preparation for the big day. Kunkel says his team will go through about 50 cans of SPAM. If you try their chili, you'll earn an "I've been SPAMmed" sticker. But aren't some people hesitant to ingest a dish containing the fabled canned-ham substance?

"We have plenty of customers," says Kunkel, "but sometimes we have to do a little encouraging. It seems like the men are always up for it. The women -- it takes a little bit of talk to bring 'em in. A lot of kids have never had it, and we turn them on to it."

Clearly this Pied Piper of pork must be stopped.

Darren Wagner is better known as the mastermind of the Heavy D's Flamin' Flatulence team. He says that on the night before the cook-off, he can be found in his kitchen with about 55 pounds of meat, some huge military-sized pots and some 10-gallon buckets from Home Depot. For some reason, Jeffrey Dahmer is brought to mind.

The banner displayed above his booth features drawings of "one guy farting and another one running away," but, he claims, "it's truly just a marketing gimmick. I majored in marketing in college. People come over there to see just what it's all about."

Wagner, who placed second last year, adds that his competition chili has 28 ingredients, of which "20 are different spices and conglomerations of different levels of heat."

The winner of the Missouri competition goes on to the national cook-off, with a $25,000 prize at stake. Kunkel, who has competed at the national level, says that it's not uncommon for this top echelon of chili chefs to use a blend of nine or more different chili powders in their recipes. Instead of ground hamburger, he reports, these cooks are more likely to use flash-frozen steak chopped into cubes.

The true chilihead, as the serious aficionados are called, samples chili after chili until, at an unmistakable impasse, he knows that it matters not whether he eats any more of the stuff today. The world grows dim and fuzzy and then clear as the winter night. He has reached his goal. He is standing on higher ground. But though he has completed his journey of enlightenment, others may only make it as far as the Johnny-on-the-Spot.