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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

A chili day in summer heat

Friday, July 22, 2011

Gail and Bill Donovan of Cincinnati, Ohio, seen here at the 2010 World Chili Championship Cookoff in New Hampshire, will be among the competitors at the Tennessee state chili cookoff Saturday on the Shelbyville square.
(Submitted photo)
Although there's such a thing as "Cincinnati chili" -- often with hints of cinnamon or clove, and served over spaghetti -- retired firefighter Bill Donovan of Cincinnati, Ohio, won't be entering it in the chili cookoff Saturday on the Shelbyville square.

Donovan, originally from New York, has been competing in chili cookoffs since 1986, and he and his wife Gail are considered by the International Chili Society (ICS) as master cooks in the red chili and green chili divisions. They will enter a Texas-style chili in the competition, although they're still up in the air about whether they'll use cubed or coarsely ground meat.

"The verdict's still out," said Donovan.

Bill Donovan leads the crowd in "YMCA" at an International Chili Society cookoff.
(Submitted photo)
Donovan doesn't really care for Cincinnati-style chili, which he refers to as "Greek style." Occasionally he and Gail will make it as their "people's choice" entry, a separate competition from the main cookoff.

The chili cookoff, a component of the "Chili, Chocolate and Chicken" festival Saturday on the square will serve as the Tennessee state championship for ICS and will qualify winners for the world championship, in late September and early October in Manchester, N.H.

Under ICS rules, competitors must cook their chili on-site. Meat may be pre-cut or pre-ground, spices can be ground and pre-mixed, and a few specifically-listed pre-made items like tomato sauce, beverages or hot pepper sauce can be used as ingredients. Everything else must be chopped and prepared on-site during the cookoff.

The Donovans, who travel by car, will bring a Coleman propane stove, a 10-foot by 10-foot tent, and some chairs, and will rent a table from the festival organizers.

ICS prohibits beans or pasta from the chili entered in the main, juried competition. By contrast, any chili in the "people's choice" division must contain beans.

When the chili is ready, some of it is ladled into a standard, cookoff-issued 32-ounce cup with the contestant's number written on the bottom. The judges will taste the chili blind, not knowing which cup came from which competitor, and will rate each entry on various factors.

Once the cup has been filled, the cook is free to let the public taste the competitive entry.

People's choice chili, unlike the competitive entry, may be prepared in advance of the competition.

Any sort of cooking competition is subjective, but Donovan said the perfect bowl of chili is a matter of balance. It must have a blend of spices, with no one spice predominant. The spicy flavor must permeate the meat and the sauce. The meat can't be too mushy or too tough. The chili's color can't be too dark or too bright.

Although the retired firefighter calls his recipe "Donovan's Code 3 Chili," that's largely for show. He said a good bowl of chili has a little spicy heat, but not too much.

"You want a little kick, to wake up your taste buds," he said, but not so much that it takes away from the pleasure and flavor of eating the chili.

Judging, of course, is a matter of opinion. It can also be influenced by a variety of factors -- is one judge more sensitive to salt than others? In what order do the judges taste the entries, and are they careful to cleanse their palates in between? Donovan said it's a truism among chili cooks that if you really like your own entry, it may turn out not to judge well, and vice versa.

Still, occasional disappointments don't take away from the fun and fellowship of the cookoff, and that's why the Donovans compete in anywhere from 10 to 17 cookoffs a year, traveling to places like Michigan, West Virginia, Illinois and as far west as Loughlin, Nevada.

Donovan, who has spent three years in remission from leukemia, said he's grateful just to be alive and healthy enough to compete. "I thank the Lord bigtime," said Donovan.

In that spirit, he and Gail try to have fun with the competition. Sometimes, that means Bill singing Bruce Springsteen's "Fire" in an Elmer Fudd voice while wearing a fire helmet, or spelling out the letters to the Village People's "YMCA." (Many cookoffs have a separate award category for showmanship, although this is not part of the chili judging.)

It was 1986 when the Donovans decided to compete in a local chili cookout sponsored by a museum. A representative of ICS invited them to the Kentucky state cookoff. "We've been cooking ever since," said Donovan.