CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- They might like their red chili hot, but wise chili cooks usually don't kick it up a notch in competitive chili contests like Smoke on the Water Chili Cook-Off, which is coming up Saturday. The winning pots usually contain a simple Texas chili of meats cooked with chili peppers in a red sauce.
"Meat in a gravy -- that's basically what it is," said Diane Lentz, of Nicholasville, Ky., who competes in and judges cook-offs.
"It's not a home-style chili with chunks of vegetables. In your competition chili, you shouldn't be able to see vegetables in the sauce."
The first-place winners in red, green and salsa categories in Smoke on the Water qualify to compete in International Chili Society's World's Championship Cook-Off in Manchester, N.H. Lentz won't cook on Saturday because she's already won red, green and salsa in earlier competitions this year.
"I have my hat trick," she said. "I'll be there to cheer on my family." Her husband, daughters and sons-in-law also compete. Lentz has competed in world championships 18 times. Her salsa won first place last year when the world competition was held at Appalachian Power Park.
Wheeling City Attorney Rosemary Humway-Warmuth and her husband, Brian Warmuth, also will simmer pots of chili at the cook-off.
Both of them know their way around the chili booth, having won state competitions in red and green chilies and in salsa. Humway-Warmuth ran the Wheeling Feeling Chili Cook-Off earlier this month. They have judged chili at the regional and international levels for the International Chili Society events.
They've competed in Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington, D.C., as well as in West Virginia, and have noted regional preferences. In Illinois, judges seem to prefer chilies made from ground meat. Lentz agreed with that assessment -- she qualified for red chili this year in Illinois and used ground meat -- but she and Humway-Warmuth both said they prefer the body and consistency produced by a pot of chili made with small, hand-cut cubes.
Cincinnati cooks make their competition chili pretty straight but often add the Queen City's signature chili blend of Greek spices to their People's Choice spot. With just a touch of cinnamon, Cincinnati chili is most notably mass-produced at Skyline Chili restaurants found in Ohio and some neighboring states.
In Florida, judges seem to prefer a thinner chili, perhaps because of the hot climate, Humway-Warmuth said.
Their cooking, tasting and judging experiences guide them in their technique, spice blends and preparation, but the Warmuths don't adjust their chilies much from one competition to another.
"It's a chili crapshoot," Humway-Warmuth said. "We just try to make our best pot of chili every time. I say, let's make it like this is the one and only pot of chili we'll ever make. Let's make that good of a chili."
Brian Warmuth entered his first chili cook-off in 1987 in Charleston's Sternwheeler Regatta event. It was held on Capitol Street, in front of the main library.
"I saw an ad for the chili cook-off, and didn't have anything to do that weekend," he said. "I thought I made a pretty good pot of chili, so I entered."
Since then, he's won the state's top spot three times for his red chili and twice for his chili verde, which qualified him to compete in five world championships. One more state win and he attains the title of ICS master chef, or someone who has qualified for the world competition six times.
At his earlier cook-offs, cooks prepared their chili with a wider variety of techniques and ingredients than they do in today's ICS-certified competitions.
"When I first started, people used a lot of different cuts of meat and larger chunks of onions and peppers. Sometimes, they were really unique," he said. "Now, people tend to cook to the ICS standard."
Cooks study winning recipes, then tweak them slightly. Competitors called Humway-Warmuth to ask about local judges' tastes before the Wheeling Feeling competition.
"I told them what they preferred last time," she said. "A lot of the same judges return year after year, but that's no guarantee for next year."
The Warmuths usually compete in Smoke on the Water, where Humway-Warmuth often wins the booth decorating competition. Her routine includes a song and dance, usually with a rose in her mouth, and the offer of her killer margaritas.
"The Charleston cook-off is always a good event and a great turnout. The crowd is really appreciative," Warmuth said. "The prize money is good and it's an ICS qualifier, so it attracts a lot of people."
Proceeds from the event benefit HospiceCare.