Gina Hyams believes chili brings people together - eating chili, making chili, a little friendly competition around chili.
After last year's success with her "Pie Contest in a Box" book and kit, published by Andrews McMeel, she has come out with "Chili Cook-Off in a Box," also published by Andrews McMeel.
Two weekends from now, Sunday, Oct. 7, she and The Meat Market in Great Barrington are hosting a chili contest- book launch party.
The Meat Market specializes in locally raised meats. It has special chili grinds and blends available for sale.
In the spirit of the book/kit and as is common with chili cook-offs, proceeds from the contest will benefit Berkshire Grown's Share the Bounty program, which provides communitysupported agriculture (CSA) farm shares to local food pantries and community meal sites.
Attendees may enter their special chili or just come to taste, but everyone gets to judge the winners.
Hyams welcomes all kinds of chili into the contest: meat, poultry, vegetarian or any combination. Some typical entries are an alllocal beef, pork and vegetable chili; a beef-bean entry; a roasted tomato and bourbon entry; and, on the more unusual side, a seafood chili entry, she said.
"While professionals are welcome to enter the contest, the focus is on home cooks. You don't need to be a chili expert to enter the contest. You just need passion for the spice of life," she said.
In the book, Hyams says chili cook-offs happen every day somewhere in the United States. While they may not take place every day in the Berkshires, there seems to be at least one chili contest for a good cause nearly every month.
Her kit includes a chili cook-off handbook, judge badges, prize ribbons, table tents, and scorecards. The handbook has prize-winning recipes and wisdom from chili cook-off winners across the country, gives a brief history of chili, provides step-by-step instructions for organizing a chili cook-off, offers tips to help prepare judges, chili music playlists, some chili cook-off themes and a mailorder resource list of chili ingredients.
This Saturday, the Berkshire County Board of Realtors is sponsoring a chili cook-off at the American Legion in Pittsfield to benefit Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity. As opposed to Hyams' chili cook-off, which highlights home cooks, this cook-off pairs a restaurant with a sponsoring real estate company for what the Realtors call, "good-natured, competitive fun."
Attendees get to taste and choose the best chilis.
Hyams writes that the modern stew called chili was created by chuck wagon cooks in Texas in the 19th century to make meat from tough wild cattle taste better.
It spread across the country by the early 20th century and was popular through World War II, after which its appeal waned.
In the 1950s, however, home cooks began creating regional chili variations and the controversy over what is true chili was off and running.
Texans, among others, consider beans in chili a blasphemy, Hyams said. There would be no discussing chicken, turkey, carrots, squash or other vegetables.
Recalls mom's chili
As a child of the 1940s and '50s, Chris Andersen of Savoy lived a small-town home life in which chili became a staple. " Probably I go back to what my mom made," Andersen said. " They did not have chili when she was growing up in Michigan. We had it in Southern California ... at least once a month. It was always red kidney beans and lots of ' em!"
If you don't feel like making chili yourself, you can eat the savory, spicy, protein- rich stew at restaurants low and high around the county.
You can get chili on your hot dog, cheeseburger or fries at Jack's Hot Dog Stand in North Adams. Chili is the signature topping at Teo's Hot Dogs in Pittsfield, while homemade chili is served on its own at the Hot Dog Ranch in both North Adams and Pittsfield.
Linda Montgomery, coowner with her husband, Jim, of Pizza Jim's, won the Thunderfest chili contest last winter.
Her secret recipe will be back on the menu for fall and winter starting this weekend. This is a beef chili with kidney beans and cannellini beans spiced with the hottest of peppers: habaneros. Even her husband doesn't know the entire recipe.
The chili at Village Pizza in North Adams won honorable mention at the Berkshire Board of Realtors contest last year.
Bean combinations are popular in the Berkshires, usually a combination of kidney and black.
Otherwise, straight kidney beans and ground beef, are most common here. Cumin is often the spice of choice, but Berkshire chili is generally mild with hot sauce is available for the asking Chili was on the menu at the Clocktower Deli last week. It's always on the menu at MadJack's BBQ Restaurant Pancho's, and Patrick's Pub, all in Pittsfield.
Each pub and restaurant has its own chili distinction and presentation.
The Old Heritage Tavern in Lenox serves it with a cap of baked cheese and a first taste of cumin. The Locker Room Pub in Lee simmers up a full richness of thick, meaty chili presented fairly simply. The Lion's Den chili in Stockbridge relies on the fresh taste and chunky texture of grassfed locally raised beef in its mild chili.
Brian Gibbons, Berkshire Organics co- owner with his wife, Aleisha, is entering both the Realtors' cook- off this weekend and the 'Chili Cook-Off in a Box' contest next week, probably making a chili based on pulled pork shoulder and braised beef short ribs.
Make it organic
"I aim to make it a local dish as organic as possible," Gibbons said. "It will be based on the seasonal produce that we have in the store now from seven different organic farms."
Gibbons will use local, grass-fed meat and his chili will also be in Berkshire Organics Kitchen for its customers to enjoy during fall and winter.
Chili made with locally raised meat is just going back onto the fall menu at Route 7 Grill in Great Barrington.
Brick House Pub in Housatonic and Barrington Brewery and Gypsy Joynt in Great Barrington keep chili made with grass-fed, locally raised beef on their menu year round. Barrington Brewery and Gypsy Joynt also offer vegetarian chili.
Chef Ron Reda at the Morgan House in Lee makes a meaty chili that is also filled with distinct, chunky vegetables.
Hyams writes, " You may disagree on the specifics of what makes for authentic chili - but everyone agrees that chili is good."
Competitions for best Berkshire chili
What: Chili Cook-Off sponsored by Real Estate Agents Charitable Taskforce (REACT) of the Berkshire County Board of Realtors.
Where: American Legion, 41 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield.
When: Saturday, 5 to 8 p.m.
Admission in advance at the board office or at the door: Adults $10; children under 12 $5; cash bar.
Competing restaurants and caterers: Berkshire Organics, Brenda & Co., Cater Thyme, Clock Tower Deli, MadJack's BBQ Restaurant, Mazzeo's Ristorante, Old Heritage Tavern, Pancho's, Patrick's Pub, Samel's Deli, Village Pizza and Zucchin's Restaurant.
Proceeds to benefit Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity.
Information: (413) 442-8049.
What: ' Chili Cook-Off in a Box' launch party and contest hosted by author Gina Hyams and The Meat Market. All attendees get to sample various chili entries and vote for the best one.
Where: The Meat Market, 389 Stockbridge Road/Route 7, Great Barrington.
When: Sunday, Oct.7, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission: $10 at the door, free for chili contestants.
Proceeds will benefit Berkshire Grown's Share the Bounty project.
Information: (413) 528-2022 or visit themeatmarketgb.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To enter: Send an email to Gina Hyams. Include the type of chili you will be entering and your phone number. Contestants must deliver a gallon of chili in either in a crock-pot or disposable chafing set, a serving spoon and a list of recipe ingredients to The Meat Market at 3 p.m. on the day of the contest.
- Judith Lerner