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Wessington’s Chili Wars
Pie bakers and chili makers are very different sorts. That’s plain to see in Wessington every July at the town’s annual Fun Day.
The festivities include a pie contest and a chili cook-off. “Some of the ladies won’t share their pie recipes easily,” says Lana Dannenbring-Eichstadt, a board member of the Wessington Development Corporation that sponsors the events. “But the pie contest is very polite, and there’s often some humor — like the time a mom entered a beautiful sour cream and raisin pie in her son’s name.” Confusion always makes for good-natured fun.
But the chili cook-off?
Dannenbring-Eichstadt winces. “The guys are pretty much out for blood in the chili competition,” she admits. “Poor Cowboy Jim has entered his pineapple chili as long as I can remember, and he keeps changing the recipe, or at least the name. He gets so mad each time he doesn’t win; last year he even went after some of the judges, who happened to be my two sisters and a niece.”
She’s referring, tongue-in-cheek, to Jim Major, a fellow board member and local promoter of Wessington. Majors have been raising beef at the northern edge of the Wessington Hills for 125 years. Jim has been perfecting his pineapple chili recipe for only a fraction of that time, but he admits he’s getting impatient with the outcome of the cook-off.
“I don’t know whether it’s because my chili sits at the end of the table and the judges have had their taste buds ruined by the beans, or just what it is,” he says. But he’ll be back this July.
The basic ingredients of Jim’s Hawaiian Chili include his wife Ruth’s canned tomatoes, homegrown beef and imported pineapple. No beans. That might be enough of an omission to warrant disqualification by some judges, but Major believes in pineapple.
One of Major’s top competitors is Lester Moeller, a St. Lawrence hog farmer who has been tinkering with a pork sausage recipe for some 40 years. “I started making chili for the kids. It’s a great protein source. I experimented with a lot of different things. That’s the thing about chili, it’s hard to hurt it.
“Now I mix a pound of pork sausage with a pound of deer burger, and mix it together with tomatoes, onions and I do use beans,” he says. “Add your spices and there aren’t many leftovers, let’s put it that way.”
Moeller, an erstwhile promoter of pork, is a past president of the state’s pork producers. When Hurricane Sandy hit the Atlantic coast, he and his wife Rosemary flew to New Jersey almost before the winds subsided and spent three days grilling pork loins and bratwurst for the victims and disaster workers.
Despite their persistence, neither Moeller or Major has yet won the Wessington cook-off. Nor has Duane Casavan, a Wessington beekeepper who brings a crockpot flavored with his own honey.
Dannenbring-Eichstadt says another regular competitor reportedly “sneaks some chocolate” into his recipe — a trick frowned upon, apparently, but not outlawed. “There’s also a Cowboy Chili, a Hula Chili and some other popular repeats. And then there’s always that friendly debate over whether real chili has beans or not.”
That won’t be settled at Wessington, where the judges are more locally focused on pineapple, venison, pork and honey.
Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the July/August 2014 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117. This year’s Wessington Fun Day is July 16. It includes a 2.5K color walk & run, a parade at 10 a.m., softball and bean bag tournaments, a car show and the chili and pie cookoffs. Everyone gets to sample the pies and chili. Proceeds support the Wessington Development Corporation.
JIM’S HAWAIIAN CHILI
4 lbs browned ground beef
1 green pepper, cubed small
1 yellow pepper, cubed small
1 small can jalapenos
2 20-oz cans of tomato sauce
2 20-oz cans of diced tomatoes (or four quarts of home-canned tomatoes to replace the diced tomatoes and sauce)
2 20-oz cans of pineapple tidbits (drained)
4 cloves chopped garlic
2 T chili powder
2 T cumin
Salt and pepper
Cook altogether for 3 to 5 hours. You might add one bottle of dark beer an hour or so before serving. This is a crockpot-size quantity fit for a cook-off and community feed.
LESTER’S PORK CHILI
1 lb of fried pork sausage
1 lb of fried deer burger
1 large sauteed onion
2 cans diced tomatoes
2 cans of chili beans (may substitute kidney or black)
1 tsp mustard
1 tsp garlic salt
1 tsp salt and pepper
Chili powder to taste
Mix all ingredients in crockpot and let simmer until hot or longer (for better flavor). Serve hot, makes enough for at least six hungry men. Leftovers can be frozen for later meals. Nice to microwave for quick meals.