Hot time in the old town: Chili cookoffs set for next weekend

Friday, July 6, 2018
Tom Hoover of Columbus, Ohio, starts his entry in the red chili category of last year’s International Chili Society Tennessee State Championship Chili Cook-off.
T-G File Photo by John I. Carney

If you think you're a good chili cook -- or if you think you're a good chili judge -- you're needed for chili cookoffs July 13-14 on the square in Shelbyville.

As of Monday, there were 39 competitors signed up, and there's still time for more to sign up between now and the competition. In fact, recent rules changes by the International Chili Society make it easier for local chili cooks to compete, according to local cookoff organizer Calvin Cannon.

In the past, every competitor had to purchase a full membership in the International Chili Society in order to compete, which might have discouraged some casual cooks with no interest in travel.

Easier entry

Now, though, ICS is offering special limited memberships allowing you to cook in just one cookoff ($10) or up to three cookoffs ($25). Both the Friday and Saturday night cookoffs will also include the "homestyle" chili category, which may be friendlier to some newcomers.

New ICS president and CEO Scott Toland plans to attend the cookoff, the first time that a head of the organization has been to Shelbyville.

In addition, this year's event will also include competition for the other major sanctioning body for chili cookoffs, the Chili Appreciation Society International. The Shelbyville event will include the state championships for both ICS and CASI.

During the Saturday cookoff, competitors in the red chili will turn in two separate bowls of chili from the same pot -- one for ICS judging, the other for CASI judging. The two organizations use different judging methods and standards, according to Cannon. For example, ICS asks individual judges to score the entries and prohibits them from conferring. CASI, however, asks judges to work collectively and agree upon a decision.

In both cases, chili is submitted for blind judging in identical cups, without any garnishes or decoration. The judges only see a number on each cup and have no idea whose chili they are tasting.

Three events, two days

There will be three different events over two days.

• On Friday evening, the cookoff will be the ICS Tennessee State Chili Cookoff. The event will coincide with a cruise-in on the square and with a haunted history tour.

• On Saturday, during the First Square Fair, the ICS Southeastern Regional Chili Cookoff will be held.

• For those preparing traditional red chili (no beans), they may also enter the CASI Tennessee State Chili Cookoff on Saturday.

The ability to compete in more than one cookoff in the same weekend is part of what attracts out-of-town competitors itching for an invitation to the ICS world championship, which will be held this year in St. Louis, or the CASI world championship, which is always held in Terlingua, Texas. Serious competitors who haven't yet earned a berth at the world championships will have several opportunities for a win in Shelbyville.

Friendly competition

But while the chili cooks are serious about their competition, they are also congenial and welcoming of newcomers. Local chili cook Dicky Thorpe, who now travels to cookoffs across the country, had a problem with his camp stove during one of his early cookoffs. A nearby couple had a free burner on their camp stove and graciously invited Thorpe to use it.

Both of the ICS cookoffs will have traditional red chili, chili verde, homestyle chili and people's choice chili categories. The CASI cookoff on Saturday will be for traditional red chili only.

Judges are needed for both days, and no experience is necessary beyond a love of good chili. Contact Cannon at 931-639-3643 for more information about judging.


Here's an explanation of those different categories:

Traditional Red Chili -- A basic red chili, made with meat and red chiles (and/or a chili powder made from red chiles). Many serious chili cooks grind their own chili powder from dried chiles, or order special high-end chili powders online. Beans (or pasta) are strictly forbidden; this category is all about the meat and the seasonings. (Chili served without beans is sometimes referred to as "Texas-style.") For the traditional red chili, green chili and homestyle chili categories, the chili must be prepared on-site during the designated contest period.

Chili Verde (Green Chili) -- This is a chili made with green chile peppers, instead of red ones, along with meat. The meat is often chicken or pork, although that's not specified by the rules. As with the Traditional Red category, no beans or pasta are allowed.

Homestyle Chili -- This category must also include beans, and the category description specifically allows "other vegetables" if desired. Homestyle chili can be made with red chiles/chili powder or green chiles (or a combination).

People's Choice -- Because a larger quantity is required, People's Choice chili can be prepared in advance and brought to the contest. The People's Choice category has the same less-restrictive ingredient rules as Homestyle Chili, and -- also like Homestyle Chili -- it must contain beans. In this case, beans are a good thing, because they serve as an extender and help the chili go farther.

Everyone judges

Unlike the other categories, which are decided by a judging panel, in this case the winner is determined by the public. Visitors to the cookoff can purchase a "tasting kit" with a bowl, a spoon and a ballot. They can visit the various tents and ask for samples, and then choose their favorite.

In the past, cooks could decide for themselves whether or not to enter the People's Choice category. But under new ICS rules, anyone entering any of the chili categories must compete in People's Choice as well.

Tasting will be open to the public from 5-7 p.m. on Friday, July 13, during the cruise-in.

Then, on Saturday, tasting will be open from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. during the First Square Fair.

Salsa -- Salsa may be prepared in advance or at the contest site, but must be entirely homemade. A contestant who is only entering the salsa category is not required to enter the People's Choice chili category.

More information about the rules is available at the ICS website,, and the CASI website, Contact Cannon, 931-639-3643, for more information about the local event.