Alaska chili cooks face off at state fair

Mike Dunham
Chris Daw stirs his grind chili before the 2011 Greatland Chili Fiesta at the Alaska State Fair. Daw returns to the competition this year.
Marc Lester
2012 Greatland Chili Fiesta winners Mary and Mike DeSpain
Photo courtesy Haley Forkner, Alaska State Fair

If it's raining, it must be time for the Alaska State Fair. Not that drizzle, monsoon, blizzard or blistering sun (it's happened) have ever deterred Alaskans from flocking to the annual end-of-summer party in Palmer. Besides, it takes a little wet, cold weather to elevate a hot bowl of chili from its mundane role of mere sustenance to the realms of gastric ecstasy.

You have the chance to experience that ecstasy for yourself Saturday when the Greatland Chili Fiesta takes place in the Alaska Glacier Products Borealis Plaza Tent on the fairgrounds. Around a dozen of Alaska's most determined chili cooks will face off in a competition sanctioned by the International Chili Society. The winner will qualify to move on to the World Championships taking place in October in Palm Springs, Calif.

Society-sanctioned categories include chili verde and Texas red styles. The event also features non-sanctioned salsa and grind competitions; the latter, recommended for first-timers, uses ground meat -- like hamburger.

The judges are served portions without beans, pasta, rice or other non-meat fillers. Those are added when the public is invited to line up and cast their vote for "People's Choice." The nice part about this is that the samples are free. The downside is that the line usually stretches out of the tent and into the Green Trail.

Haley Forkner, the fair's cooking events coordinator, wasn't sure how long the chili cook-off has been going on. She recalled competing in it herself more than 20 years ago. "Most competitors make extra for the People's Choice samples," she said. But belly up early; in my experience there's a lot more public than there are samples.

The fair tries to have nine judges for the cook-off. "That's because there are a lot of different tastes out there and we want to have a variety," Forkner said.

Veteran contestants try to evaluate the judges in various ways, she noted. An older judge or a smoker is more likely to go for something saltier than a younger person, she said.

The judges evaluate the entries on several levels, Forkner said. "Is it a broth or more substantial? Is the texture of the meat too chewy or munchy? The blend of spices should be not too hot but not too mild." Alaska participants who have competed in out-of-state chili cook-offs have told her that the entries tend to be a lot hotter down there, she added.

Competitive chili cooks tend to be a persistent and dedicated group. A little shrine with candles will be set up in the tent this year honoring the late Judy Burke, a regular participant and multiple winner in the event for many years. And some of this year's returning participants, like Mike DeSpain and Chris Daw, were also contestants at the Midnight Sun Chili Cook-Off, another International Chili Society-sanctioned event that took place on Anchorage's Delaney Park Strip on the Fourth of July.

Last year DeSpain and his wife Mary worked side by side and were honored with separate first place wins in the verde and red divisions. This year, Forkner reported, the marital gloves are off.

"They'll be competing against each other," she said, as Mr. and Mrs. M Squared, respectively.

Fun team names are part of the sport. Death By Chili and Fireballs are in Saturday's lineup.

Away from the competition, the inventive Alaska locavore may be able to add fresh local produce to his or her own chilly-weather repellent at home. Herbs, onions, garlic, peppers and tomatoes from Alaska are all available right now. And with hunting season in the wings, it's possible to create moose, caribou or bear chili. Keep in mind, however, that the International Chili Society requires meat to be USDA inspected, at least in the grind category.

The Greatland organizers don't really push local produce, Forkner said. While chili can be a vegetarian dish, no one really thinks of it as such. In fact the International Chili Society rules require meat in the verde and red categories.

"But we are encouraging the cooks to incorporate Alaska-grown produce in our other cooking events," she said, particularly the Alaska Seafood Throwdown on Sunday and the Rancher's Reserve Beef Showdown -- Forkner calls it "the battle of the grills" -- on Sept. 1.

You can get free samples at those, too.

Greatland Chili Fiesta State Cook-Off

Saturday, Alaska Glacier Products Borealis Plaza Tent

Alaska State Fair in Palmer

Free with fair admission

Categories and schedule:

Salsa: A combination of vegetables and/or fruit, processed and assembled fresh on site. Prep starts at 10 a.m., judging and sampling at noon

Grind Chili: Any kind of ground USDA inspected meat, coarse or fine grind. (Contestants can also ask their local market to pack a special blend with a variety of chili peppers and other ingredients, but no beans, pasta, or rice.) Prep starts at 10 a.m., judging and sampling at 1 p.m.

International Chili Society Chili Verde: Any kind of meat cooked with green chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients, but no beans, pasta, or rice. Prep starts at 11 a.m., judging and sampling at 2 p.m.

International Chili Society Texas Red Chili: Any kind of meat cooked with red chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients, but no beans, pasta or rice. Prep starts at noon, judging and sampling at 3 p.m.

Award presentations, 4 p.m.

The contenders

The following teams had signed up for the Greatland Chili Fiesta as of press time.

The Californians (Dr. Ernest and Riley Almendarez)

Pink Peppers (Kathleen Himmelright and Paula Ahrens)

Hellsapoppin' (William Johnson and Alex Chroeder)

Chili DAWgs (Chris Daw and Angela Conway)

Red Cat Cooking Team (Mary Helms)

Red Cat Cooking Team II (Parry Phanouvong)

Burr-itos (Ariel and Timothy Burr)

Mr. M Squared (Mike DeSpain)

Mrs. M Squared (Mary DeSpain)

Death by Chili (Victoria Wolfe and Rex Burgett)

Fireballs (Steve Hanson and Jullian Martin)

More state fair cook-offs at the Borealis Plaza Tent

Alaska Seafood Throwdown, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Sunday. Billed as an epic "battle of champions."

Rancher's Reserve Beef Showdown, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 1. Contestants include teams from UAA, AVTEC and, fresh from Afghanistan, the U.S. Army.

Last Frontier Dutch Oven Cook-Off, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday, Sept. 2. Cooking like your great-great-great grandmother did it.

More chili

Chili cook-offs are a popular fundraiser for nonprofit groups. One will be hosted at 7 p.m. Tuesday by the Alaska Fine Arts Academy, 12340 Old Glenn Highway, Suite 200, in Eagle River.

The event is free, though donations are requested. Contestants are asked simply to bring a pot of chili to enter.

Non-competitors are welcome to stop by and sample the entries with corn bread along with some live music.

To enter, call 230-1453 or email

• Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.