More fun, less fire

In 1967, humorist H. Allen Smith penned an article titled “Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do.” Strong words – and he didn’t ease off after the title.

“To create chili without beans, either added to the pot or served on the side, is to flout one of the basic laws of nature,” Smith opined, further lamenting that “Dallas journalist Frank X. Tolbert … throws in corn meal. Heaven help us one and all! You might as well throw in some puffed rice, or a handful of shredded alfalfa, or a few maraschino cherries.”

According to Tabasco Pepper Sauce’s official Web site (, the article’s publication in the New York Times roused a response from Texan Wick Fowler, who blustered: “If you knew beans about chili, you knew chili didn’t have beans.”

There was, of course, nothing to do but battle it out, so that year, Terlingua, Texas (formerly an abandoned mining town) got a taste of the action at the first-ever chili cook-off. Neither Smith nor Fowler was crowned world chili champion – a tie was conveniently declared – but from then on, chili cook-offs have been common fare.

If you cook it, they will come

The local take – the Maggie Valley Chili Challenge (now in its 10th year) – had slightly less desperado-esque beginnings.

“It was started as a winter event for skiers in town,” admits Jared Bullock from the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “It was originally geared toward tourists. We now have half tourists and half locals [attending].”

Held at the Diamond K Dance Ranch, the event draws about 15 competitors and as many visitors as want to sample the wares.

This year’s contest has two divisions – individual and commercial. That means single chefs and organizations such as clubs, churches and, yes, restaurants. But this competition doesn’t necessarily separate the amateurs from the professionals – in fact, even the local-VIP judges are seemingly chosen by a simple willingness to slurp down that much spicy soup (rather than, say, by their culinary résumés).

“A lot of the judges have been doing this for years,” Bullock notes. “[Haywood County] Sheriff Tom Alexander has been a part of [the competition] since the beginning.”

CiCi Hipps, the new executive director of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, will offer up her taste buds for chili judging for the first time this year, as will Western Carolina University Athletic Director Chip Smith.

Put on your game face

“You may suspect, by now, that the chief ingredients of all chili are fiery envy, scalding jealousy, scorching contempt and sizzling scorn,” wrote Smith in his article.

But it’s not quite like that in Maggie Valley. The local event is more about fun, entertainment and – oh, yeah – chili, too. Besides the celebrated dishes, there’s clogging, a full house band (wait 30 minutes between gorging and dancing), a hot-dog dinner, cash bar and door prizes. Hardly a rehashing of the Hatfields and McCoys.

And, for what it’s worth, the public has a say in who wins. “There’s a people’s-choice award,” Bullock explains. “You can get samples of the 15 different chilis. If you like one, you can go back for a bigger bowl.”

To make sure there’s enough for everyone, competitors cook up a hefty five gallons each. Oh, and they have to name their creations.

“Last year’s winner had a Carolina Panthers theme,” Bullock recalls. The chili champ – Richard Setliff – decorated his booth with a football motif.

Setliff is apparently hoping for a little instant replay: “This year, his theme is ‘Game Day,'” the event organizer reveals.

No holds (or vegetarians) barred

“The straight story on the origin of chili is difficult to determine, as it’s mixed with much conjecture and storytelling,” muses a passage on “One point not in dispute is that chili is an American invention, not Mexican. General consensus dates its beginnings to the mid-1800s with Texas trail cooks who had to feed hungry cowboys on long trail drives, using whatever ingredients were on hand.”

These days, there are as many kinds of chili as there are cooks to prepare it. “We tried to get [a cook] who competed in Fletcher last year,” Bullock reveals. “He does a green chili – but I don’t know if he’ll compete.” Just in case, the event planners sent him an application.

And then, for the herbivores, there’s always chili sans carne. “Last year, a vegetarian chili was entered by Cole and Company,” the organizer recalls, hoping that the Maggie Valley realty company will bring their concoction back for seconds.

For those busily mixing and testing new chili recipes in their kitchens, Smith’s words of wisdom may stir up a little inspiration: “The secret of making superior chili lies first in the ingredients and second in the genius of the cook,” he wrote in 1967. “Nothing should ever be measured. Experimentation is the thing.”

The 10th Annual Maggie Valley Chili Challenge gets cooking on Sunday, Feb. 27 from 5-8 p.m. at the Diamond K Dance Ranch (Highway 19, past Maggie Valley Town Hall). Admission is $8/adults, $6/kids 12 and under. For directions and more information, call 926-1686.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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