My Mom made the very best chili in the whole world. No, not an exaggeration. The VERY BEST! At least that's what I thought when I was coming up in rural Missouri. Once a month or so she would surprise me with a wonderful bowl of Missouri chili. And yes, there really was - and is - a Missouri chili. Just as there's a Pennsylvania chili, a New Mexico chili, an Alaska chili and an Ohio chili. Each state, in fact, has a unique style of chili and I think Missouri's is the best. Rich and thick, maroon in color, full of hearty beef and pork, lots of veggies, such as onions, bell peppers and celery, plus three kinds of beans, and heavy with chili powder and cumin. Just a little sweet on the tip of the tongue at first, with a clean mid-palate flavor, followed by a warm heat at the back of the mouth and throat. Yes, Missouri chili is by far the best. But unfortunately, my Mom passed away without passing on her recipe to me. So, for 20 years or so I pined for that wonderful chili, tasting all I could get from others, but enjoying them little, knowing not what to do about it.
Then one day I decided to exercise my Eagle Scout ingenuity and became proactive. I jumped on the computer and Googled "chili recipes." What popped up was a couple of hundred thousand of them! I spent literally months reading recipes. I ordered the International Chili Society's book of winning recipes back to Carroll Shelby's first competition in Terlingua, TX. I read each recipe trying to determine by its ingredients what it might taste like and how closely it might emulate Mom's chili. Finally I hit upon one that looked enticing; it was Steve Spurrier's "Chili for Ten." He had come up with this little gem while Head Coach of Florida State Football. I decided to put it to the test. I made it.
Wow! It was good! Not great, but very, very good. I made mental notes as to what I thought it might need to taste more like Mom's and then made it again. But my friends who had tasted the first batch grew in number. So I grossed it up to "Chili for 20." And did it again, with modifications to the amount and number of its ingredients, ever trying to improve it. I kept making more and more of it to satisfy my hungry fans, especially at my annual Super Bowl parties. The recipe grew over the years to enough for 30, then 40, and 50, and then to 60, 70 and 80. Finally I just threw out all the stops and started making enough chili to feed 100 guests in a pot the size of Rhode Island. And each batch got better and better. It was suggested I enter my creation in a local pub's chili cook off. I did. It won. I then decided I would retire undefeated. No more contests for me. Right...
Just this past weekend our local American Legion Post #291 hosted the second annual Surf Fest. For those of you who don't know, this is the only Legion in America that's right on the water in Newport Beach. It has its own yacht club and boasts about 6,000 members. It's pretty damn special to us, its members, and usually blows away guests who visit it for the first time. Its Sons of the American Legion's leaders came up with the Surf Fest concept to raise money for children's charities. It has all the ingredients for success: surf bands (Chantays, Surfaris, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jan and Dean Show, etc.), old woodies and hot rods, lots of food and drink, wonderful, sunny So. Cal. weather and a chili cook off! What's not to like? So, I decided to put my undefeated status on the pass line and entered.
There were 19 of us cooking that day. It was all "people's choice," so each chili was different from every other. But they were all the same in terms of the intensity and enjoyment of the cooks. We welcomed about 1,000 attendees and each eagerly went from booth-to-booth tasting the entrants' chili. Ours too. My wife, Elaine, and I arrived before 7:00 to set up our pop-up, tables, stove, etc and heat up our concoction. Two of my daughters and their hubbies showed up to assist. We started serving at noon and had to turn in our offering for totally blind judging at 1:30 p.m. Thereafter we served chili all afternoon until it ran out, listened to the great music and imbibed on the "lemonade" we had brought along especially for that purpose. A quintessential SoCal day.
Then the announcer took the stage. Steve Porter, a friend, boat captain, long-time member and Chief Judge of the Chili Society, and one-time winner of third-in-the- world, announced the winner of Best Booth. Then the Best Theme. Then he announced Third Place. Not me. Then Second Place. Not me again. I had my fingers crossed, not wishing to be blown out so publicly. Not to worry. Steve then stated, "We're never gonna' hear the end of this, our First Place Winner is Chuck Cassity!" The crowd erupted in applause! I thrust my aging hands high into the air. It felt great to have my creation recognized and to take home the trophy, which is roughly the size of a Major League baseball(!). I won't have to work hard to find a place to display it. It would fit almost anywhere. Oh, and by the way, a little cash came with it, but just about enough to cover the cost of the chili and entrance fee. But it was a great day and we all had a fine, exhausting and rewarding time. I might even do it again next year. Hey, even if I don't win, I'm still batting .667, right!
Memo to Dana: See kid, I can write a whole blog entry without a single political reference...