Great chili debates: sauce to seasoning, mac to meat

If you seriously doubt our nation’s ability to seriously but pleasantly debate anything, I have one word for you: Chili.

After asking Facebook friends what makes a bowl of chili distinctive, passionate preferences bubbled up pretty quickly. Geographic loyalty mattered a little, but certainly not politics. Hallejulah!

What must chili contain to be worthy of the word? Don’t take anything – a tomato base, beans, meat, macaroni, chili powder – for granted. Sacred basics, to you, are easily discarded on the next front burner.

Ground meat or chunks? Hamburger, venison, chicken or no meat? A sauce of white, green or tomato red? A mix of beans, just one or none? Swimming with macaroni, served over rice, spaghetti or nothing? What’s served on the side: onions, jalapenos, grated cheddar, chopped avocado, sour cream?

Cincinnati-style chili has Mediterranean flair: cumin, cinnamon, allspice, cloves and cocoa powder. Chili con carne, which ditches the beans, since 1977 is the state dish of Texas.

“There’s an oddball canned chili (originally from central Illinois) that doesn’t have any tomatoes,” says Dick Griffith of Chicago. “It’s Chilli Man — the state legislature of Illinois has established ‘chilli’ as the official Illinois spelling. Oddly, Chilli Man chili now comes from my hometown of Faribault, Minnesota.”

V8 juice is the base for Jeff Machut’s chili; for years he organized annual chili cookoffs in Monona. “We had some unique chilis – rib bones, cod and chicken among the ingredients.” Cod!

Life’s most cherished recipes reinforce fond memories, and that’s true among chili makers. Fran Wieneke of Sheboygan prefers her mom’s simplified recipe, “which I make proudly” with tomato soup, chili powder, brown sugar, onion, macaroni and hamburger. It is served with saltines.

Guys like Graeme Zielinski, formerly of Milwaukee, turns chili into a gourmet, “Texas red” experience. He says:

“I use a slurry of guajillo, arbol and japones, make multiple dry spice dumps, render bacon to soften the garlic and onions to start off, and do one cycle of milk to make it richer. My other secrets are my own.

Sound too hot? “The heat is in the background,” Graeme says. “The main feature is the earthy, oily, smoky flavor of the chiles. Heat is not the point. Umami and texture here.”

Juliet Rake in Madison shuns chili powder because “even in stores, it is already stale. I find using smoked paprika and cayenne with cumin and oregano produces a similar but much fresher taste.”

In Los Angeles, Ellen Clark’s chili secrets are brown sugar and beef stock (added to a large can of tomatoes). Renee Rice in Madison adds cinnamon to chili – and chicken soup. The chili bean mix for Alan Carr of Kansas City includes green beans.

The Rev. Wanda Weinbauer Veldman of Pittsville uses butternut squash (bite-sized pieces or a puree) to thicken chili: “Adds some sweetness to the spicy flavor profile.” For Dave Backmann of Racine, a dark beer, chocolate, jalapenos and venison are in his winning mix (a Leinenkugel’s recipe, he says). Patricia Wood Winn of Chicago uses peanut butter as a chili thickener, something she learned from a restaurant chef long ago.

Wisconsin native Stacey Deloye, now in Florida, says her favorite second-day chili tricks are to “either stretch them with macaroni and a covering of bubbly cheddar, or put them in a cast-iron skillet, mix up a recipe of corn bread, pour the batter over the chili and bake.”

Wisconsin has no shortage of winter fundraisers with chili, and some don’t bother with a singular recipe to feed all. The “chili dump” is a fond memory for Holly De Ruyter of Chicago, a Wisconsin native.

“Every family brought in a batch of their own chili, and they all got dumped together,” sold by the bowl, she explains, of her time at Pulaski school fundraisers. “It was so interesting to see each chili come in. They were all so different.”

It’s not done that way for the annual Pulaski Music Boosters Chilirific Musicpalooza, which 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29, at Pulaski High School, 1040 S. St. Augustine St. Tickets at the door are $7 ($2 for children) for nearly nonstop music and an all-you-can-eat meal starring 150 gallons of chili.

More than 20 percent of Pulaski’s middle and high school students are in a choir or band. Chilirific raises $16,000 to $20,000 for student performance fees, medals, travel expenses and more. The high school band was one of 19 in this year’s Tournament of Roses Parade, their third trip to perform in Pasadena.

Among the many other annual, chili-centric events this winter:

Milwaukee Chili Bowl, noon to 5 p.m. Jan. 29 – Milwaukee chefs compete for the Golden Ladle Award at Potawatomi Hotel and Casino, 1721 W. Canal St. Around 30 restaurants are represented. Admission is $20 for eight chili samples (each 3 ounces), bread or rolls and a $10 gaming certificate. A VIP ticket for $45 adds an event T-shirt and admission at 11 a.m. 414-687-5365

Chili Dump, St. Germain, 2-5 p.m. Feb. 4 – Barnstormers Snowmobile Club stages the event at Patti’s Murmuring Waters Lodge, 8120 Murmuring Water Dr. Proceeds help maintain snowmobile trails in Vilas County. 715-542-2751

Chili Golf Open, Phillips, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 4 – Enough snowplowing on Long Lake is done to create nine holes of fairways and greens for this fundraiser that benefits Flambeau Hospice. Registration at Harbor View Pub, 1094 N. Lake Ave., includes golfing (bring just one club) and a bowl of chili from a cook-off whose entrants include restaurant chefs. 715-339-6296

Chili Crawl, Fond du Lac, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 11 – Pay $10 at Downtown Deli to Go, 74 S. Main St., and get a map of downtown businesses will serve chili. Walk, taste and vote for your favorite. Get an event T-shirt in exchange for a completed ballot. The event is part of Sturgeon Spectacular events, Feb. 10-12.  920-322-2006

Bar Stool Races and Chili Feed, Drummond, starting at noon Feb. 18 – Chili is the reward for attaching skis to bar stools and maneuvering a hill behind Black Bear Inn, 15050 Hwy. 63, in Chequamegon National Forest. Proceeds benefit the work of the Sno-Jacks, a snowmobile club. cable4fun.com, 715-739-6313

The International Chili Society, based in California, organizes the annual World’s Championship Chili Cookoff, where the winner gets $25,000. The Wisconsin state champ is decided in a September cook-off in Green Lake. 877-777-4427

The annual World Food Championships has 12 categories, including one for chili, and shells out $300,000 among winners. The 2016 winner was a professional baker, Liz Kraatz of Liz’s Cake Art, St. Louis. 615-297-6886

Chef Christopher Czarnecki of the Joel Palmer House, Dayton, Ore., reminds us that January is National Soup Month and Feb. 4 is National Soup Day. The restaurant is collecting soup recipes and memories about what makes them special. Enter by Jan. 31 (via email, to info@joelpalmerhouse.com) for a chance to get your soup on the restaurant menu and receive a private cooking class with the chef, in person or through Skype.com. 503-864-2995

Liam Kivirist of Browntown was 11 years old in 2013 when his chili recipe, a winner in the Healthy Lunch Challenge, earned him a trip to the White House with parents Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko (who have a solar-powered oven). Here is the winning recipe.

Wisconsin Solar-Oven–Simmered Chili
(8 servings)

½ pound lean ground turkey
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced (about 1 cup)
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced (about 1 cup)
1 cup tomato sauce
2 tomatoes, diced (about 2 cups)
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 can (15 ounces) black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can (15 ounces) kidney beans, rinsed and drained
2 cups pumpkin purée (or a 15-ounce can)
½ cup quinoa
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon sea salt
Optional toppings: plain Greek-style yogurt, shredded cheddar cheese

In a nonstick skillet over medium heat, cook ground turkey, stirring to break up the meat, until browned, about 5 minutes. Add onion, garlic, and bell peppers and sauté, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes.

In a medium-size slow cooker, combine tomato sauce, tomatoes, chicken broth, black and kidney beans, pumpkin purée, quinoa, chili powder, cumin, paprika, cinnamon and salt. Add turkey mixture and stir to combine. Cook on low 5 to 6 hours or on high 3 to 4 hours. (Other options: Simmer in a large pot on the stove about 3 hours, or bake it in an ovenproof dish in a 300-degree solar oven about 3 hours.) Serve as desired with yogurt, cheese or other healthy chili toppings.