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Sampling chili on chilly day in Libby

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| October 8, 2009 12:00 AM

An estimated 120 chili testers brought their appetites to Heritage Museum’s fourth annual Chili Cook-Off on Saturday, pleasantly surprising organizers who feared a low turnout would correspond with a slow-to-signup group of cooks.

Chili entries doubled to 12 after organizers extended the deadline to the last minute, and a steady flow of chili fans showed up to Saturday’s fundraiser, paying $3 for tasting cups and a slice of cornbread.

Some of the four judges closed their eyes before bringing a plastic spoonful to their lips, smelling the aroma and taking the mixture into their mouths like fine wine before they marked their judge’s sheet.

Chili fans hovered around the simmering pots, waiting for judges to finish a chili evaluation before it could be released to the public for tasting.

“No, not yet,” 14-year-old Kaya Hardgrove replied to requests to taste her “Nana’s mild and sweet northwestern chili.”

Her chili, entry No. 11, hadn’t been judged yet. She stood patiently beside her grandma, Patty Hardgrove, who dished out a “bean-free garden chili” to all who held out a small paper cup. 

Kaya used a recipe that her grandma developed for a family that dislikes spicy food.

“None of our family likes spicy chili and we’re always putting catsup in it,” said Patty, explaining the origin of the recipe that she lent to her granddaughter.

But catsup was absolutely not an ingredient, Kaya assured tasters. Her chili, she said, has a “tangy, sweet, tomato taste” with “lots of sweet onion and peppers.”

The two only competed against each other for “people’s choice” because their chili belonged to different categories – with beans and without.

Patty decided to go bean-free when she received an e-mail the day before that only two people signed up for the category. 

“I decided I’ll take my three-bean chili, take the beans out and add stuff so I don’t have to have a gallon-and-a-half of meat,” Patty said. “So we gardened it.”

The two began by chopping onions, peppers and vegetables with knives that Kaya’s grandpa keep extra sharp – so sharp that they wore rubber gloves for protection.

“Chopping is the toughest,” Kaya said, adding that they scrubbed their hands well before preparing the food and were careful not to double-dip.

Though Kaya’s chili was nothing to scoff at, it was her grandma’s original concoction that won the “people’s choice” award and first place in her category.

“This was the first time I made this,” she said. “It’s an original as of today.”