This story is based on my Jean Hays series. For the recipe, go to my blog post Chili Spice Mix, Chicklets in the Kitchen.
Jean and Karen and Karen’s daughter, Peggy, were in the bowling alley bar. Jean sipped her beer. “I haven’t had beer this good since I was in Germany.”
“I’ll have to admit; I do love these craft beers. Clever of the bowling alley to upscale their bar.” Karen poured a second glass from the pitcher on the table.
“Mom, did you read today’s paper?” Margaret drew the twice weekly paper from her tote. “The chili cook-off is in two weeks.” She handed the paper to her mother.
Karen opened it and looked at the community activities section. “Oh, yeah! I haven’t entered that in a few years.” She grinned at Jean. “Want to enter?”
Jean laughed. “The way I cook? What would be the point?”
“Come on. About time you learned to cook the southwest way. That New England boiled dinner stuff has got to go.”
Jean’s mouth fell open. “That’s comfort food, I’ll have you know.”
“Maybe so. But it’s dull. Spice up your life.”
“I don’t know. I suppose I can just open a chili spice packet.”
Both Karen and Peg gasped. “Don’t you dare! I’ll tell the judges and have you kicked out.” Karen shook her head.
“Well then, what do you do?”
“I use my mom’s spice recipe. You’ve had it, by the way. I use it as a dry rub on ribs.”
“Oh, the ones we had last week? Those were wonderful.”
“Good. Go on line, search for chili recipes. Find one that seems good to you. Then go to the store and look at the ingredients in canned or jarred Mexican food. Modify the recipe so it’s yours. Make a test batch or two of chili. Then bring it to the contest.”
Jean snorted. “That’s all, huh?”
“Well, you have to enter the contest now.” The three of them laughed.
The next day Jean went on-line to the contact given and entered the chili cook-off. Then got on her computer to search for recipes. She focused on prize-winning ones. No sense getting just any recipe. After jotting down ingredients from a handful she found she noted that most of them were quite similar. She started a new list, one that contained the same ingredients that they all did. Then Jean considered the differences. It seemed that the small amounts of different herbs and spices were the key. Time to go to the grocery.
She spent some time looking at the canned and jarred prepared Mexican food. Most of it contained the basic flavors she had on her base recipe. A few, however, did go outside of the box. Making notes about those different flavors, she gathered all of the ingredients and went home to whip up a batch of chili spice.
Jean made some averages on measurements. Many of the recipes used almost the same amounts. It was her additions that caused her pause. She decided to base her amounts on the other recipe’s small additions and give it a try.
The first batch was way too hot, as far as she was concerned. She cut back on the ancho peppers. The second batch had too much cilantro. It was the fifth batch that she liked the best. Writing down her recipe, she went back to the store to refresh her supplies. The cook-off was two days away.
She borrowed a crock pot from Karen and carefully transported the chili to the cook-off. It was a fund-raiser so people bought tickets, then after getting one ounce tastes, selected the chili they liked best, second and third, by dropping the tickets into cans at the exit.
Jean and Karen were next to each other and enjoyed talking to all of the people who came by to get a taste of their chili. Chief White, the Greyson Chief of Police came by. “Hi Karen. Glad to see you back. Your chili is always a favorite.” He held his little cup out to Jean. “Glad to see you entering, Jean. Is the chili hot?”
She shrugged. “I’d say medium, but everyone’s taste is different.”
“We’ll see. Later, ladies.”
Karen elbowed Jean. “Two years. Why don’t you ask him out for coffee?”
Jean rolled her eyes. “Oh for gosh sakes. He’s not interested. Remember, he thinks we’re both bubble heads.”
Karen laughed. “Keep telling yourself that.”
Jean was scraping the last half ounce of chili from the crockpot when time was called. Several of the competitors had run out half an hour before. She hoped it was because they’d been too generous or hadn’t brought enough, not that theirs was better.
It took forty-five minutes before the organizers got on the microphone to announce the winners. Jean didn’t know the third place winner, though Karen seemed to and clapped when the guy’s name was announced. Then the announcer said, “And second-place goes to returning cook, Karen Carter!”
Jean jumped up and down and hugged her friend. “How great! And after you’ve been out of it for so long.” Karen went up and got her small trophy and certificate. Jean was looking the prize over when the announcer said, “And this year first-place goes to newcomer Jean Hays!”
Karen hooted in Jean’s ear. “You won!” She jumped up and down. “You won!” She shoved Jean, still shocked, toward the announcer.
Jean stumbled forward, applause washing over her, blushing. The announcer, the head of the organization, held the first prize cup between them as they faced a photographer. Jean smiled and nodded at the congratulations and managed to get “Thank you all so much,” out of her mouth.
At their table, Karen hugged Jean again. “I guess I can’t say you can’t cook anymore.”
Jean shook her head. “I guess not.”