by Gary James
Bar Logistics Manager
When my family was young, we rented a home in the Sugar House area in Salt Lake City. The neighborhood was old, and the homes either belonged to elderly couples or were being rented by young folks like us. The LDS ward in our area was jokingly referred to as “Newly Wed or Nearly Dead.”
Our new (old) neighbors were quick to welcome us and invite us to church activities, including their annual chili cook-off. I wasn’t an especially good chili cook, but I found a recipe that seemed interesting because it used liquid smoke, and we made a batch to bring with us. The judging was done by a panel of sweet old ladies who had obviously been doing it for 50 years. They would take a nibble, nod at each other knowingly, and say, Oh, that’s Margaret’s. I can taste the chocolate,” or “Oooo, that one’s got a kick!”
At the end of the night, no one was more surprised than me when my chili took first place. I was careful not to make a big deal of winning because the dear old ladies didn’t seem very pleased that an outsider (a young whippersnapper, no less!) had taken their prize. Still, they were gracious and kind. One of them even offered to watch our baby son if we ever needed a sitter.
The story of the cook-off and my “Championship Chili” would have ended there, an odd little tale in our family history, if it weren’t for what happened next.
A few months later, that same kind old lady was baby-sitting our son Connor when she found him in his crib, not breathing. In desperation, she called her son who came and tried to resuscitate Connor, but our baby was already gone. The poor woman was distraught. We were heartbroken and devastated.
It’s been over 20 years since those events, but I still make our family’s Championship Chili whenever my daughter Taylor requests it, which is often. Sometimes the smell and taste and texture of certain food is our strongest link to the past. And sometimes, when we go through the motions of preparing and sharing a meal, a part of ourselves is reborn.
To this day, every time I mix up a batch of this recipe I am flooded with the bitter-sweet memories of Connor, that house, and everything that happened there.
Championship Chilimakes 20 servings
- 1 red onion, chopped
- 2 green bell peppers, chopped
- 2 yellow or orange peppers, chopped
- (2) 15 oz cans of tomato sauce
- (2-3) 10 oz cans of Rotel Tomatoes
- (2) 15 oz cans of dark red kidney beans
- (2) 15 oz cans of pinto beans
- (2) 15 oz cans of black beans
- 1 lb hardwood smoked thin bacon
- 1½ lb ground beef
- ground black pepper
- 3 Tbsp chili powder
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 Tbsp cumin
- In a slow cooker/crock pot, add all chopped veggies, tomato sauce, and Rotel tomatoes. Drain all canned beans and add them to the pot.
- Cut bacon into ½ inch pieces and fry in a pan until crispy. Add bacon and half the bacon fat into the pot. Add ground beef to the remaining bacon fat in the pan. Salt and pepper the ground beef, fully cook it, and drain off fat before adding the ground beef to the pot.
- Add chili powder, cumin, and minced garlic.
- Cook on high for 4-5 hours, then reduce heat for 1-2 hours.
Note: I also add fresh tomatoes to taste. If the smoked bacon doesn’t give enough of a smoky taste/scent, I add a dash of liquid smoke.