Rustlin' Up Some Chili for the Folks
Well, howdy, partner!
If you're not from these parts, then you might not know 'bout the annual festivities that go on 'round here. So you just sit a spell, and I'll tell you the story 'bout a man named John, who won out over a mean bunch of cooks in one tough competition.
Well, maybe they weren't all that mean.
On a downright dreary day, overlooking the western part of Fort Detrick, nestled deep in the heart of the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity, five brazen challengers took up their ladles to find out who would be named the best of the best in the 6th Annual USAMMDA Chili Cook-Off contest.
From the very start, you could see the grit in their eyes – two gents and three ladies with nothing but the coveted Can O' Beans trophy in their sights. The rivalry was heated, hot, spicy, peppery, garlicy, oniony, salty… Well, you get the picture – we're talkin' 'bout chili here.
To run down the list of contestants, there was John Boxell serving up his Johnny B's Chili con Carne, Carolyn Etzler with her Beef and Butternut Squash Chili, Michael Marx dishing out his Amazing Chili, Carey Phillips offering her Buffalo Chicken Chili, and Chris Benson doling out her Sweet Southern Kick'n Chili.
Now, if that weren't enough to wet your whistle, many of these first-rate cooks added some fixins to their dishes, such as cream corn muffins, shredded cheese, sour cream, blue cheese, celery, and even some fine fresh chocolate – to soothe the palate after the burn.
The hungry crowd flowed in from all parts, and they ate and ate, and ate some more. The utter anxiousness that flooded the great hall was mighty palpable; there was talk that some even spilled their plates in awe of the battle.
Nevertheless, the contest ran on, and a winner was chosen by a strict and safeguarded vote, determined by taste and taste alone (as I was told).
Lt. Col. David Saunders, acting commander of USAMMDA, announced the winner to all.
"This year's competition was very intense," said Saunders. "For quite a while, we had a four-way tie for second place, but then the final vote was tallied, and Chris Benson ended up taking the runner-up honors.
"I'm pleased to announce that this year's winner is Mr. John Boxell, with his 'Johnny B's Chili con Carne!'"
Now, to some, this may not seem like much of a victory. But trust me, to those who have taken hold of that ol' Can O' Beans trophy – and hoisted it up high over their heads in triumph – a prouder moment may never come again.
Just ask Alan Harner, the 2012 champion, or Carolyn Etzler, who won in 2013 and was in the running again this year, or Kathy Berst, the back-to-back winner from 2014 and 2015. I'm sure they'll all say that this competition goes far beyond the crock pot – it goes deep into the soul of every chef who takes great pride in chopping, mincing, browning, and simmering, all for the sheer love of the dish.
I caught up with a jubilant Boxell, who was savoring his victory, and I asked about his winning recipe.
"It's a pretty traditional chili," he said, "with sweet onion, dark and light kidney beans, chili powder, and lean ground beef, which adds a lot to the taste. Over time, I played around with the recipe to perfect it. It's not very spicy – it's more a 'middle-of-the-road' flavor."
When I asked if he prepares this often, Boxell said that he usually makes it in the winter, because his family really enjoys it.
"My 18-month-old granddaughter even loves it," he said. "Although, she probably wears it as much as she eats it – but that's okay!"
As the event was coming to a close, I strolled over to speak with Chris Benson, who came in second to Boxell. Benson is a member of the USAMMDA Social Committee, who hosts this annual event, and she is also the organizer of the Chili Cook-Off each year.
"We're all pleased with how it turned out," said Benson. "We had 45 people show up to taste and judge the entries, and it helped with our funds towards the USAMMDA holiday party, which is wonderful!"
Benson said that they usually have eight to 10 entries, but due to a conflict in scheduling, they had to move the date, which resulted in only five contestants this year. However, the thrill was still the same.
As Benson said, "The bottom line is, we really want to have a fun contest, and if we can make some money for our fund as well, then it is definitely worth it!"
While the last contestants were cleaning up and exiting the room, I noticed Boxell was still present, so I walked over for a few final words. Having finished second in last year's cook-off, Boxell said that this win was somewhat redemption for him.
"I'm very proud to have won this year," he said. "It really is an honor, but it's really a lot of fun as well."
Without a doubt, fun plays an important role in this yearly challenge, and the sought-after prize is a big factor as well.
"I think I may get a pedestal to display the Can O' Beans trophy while I have it for the year!" said Boxell.
Well, that's the story, and a fine one it is. Be certain, this challenge is not meant for the faint of heart, or the common tenderfoot, greenhorn or city-slicker. It's a rough-and-tumble fight for the honor of top cook 'round the campfire – a title that sticks with the winner like molasses on a gumdrop.
But maybe, just maybe, if you can stand the heat, someday you could end up with a treasured trophy that eludes even the best. I reckon that's just the way it is – there can only be one winner.
And this year, it was John Boxell.
Now go on, skedaddle!