Chugwater, Wyoming, Puts On A Giant Chili Cookoff That Attracts World Champs

For one day a year, Chugwater, Wyoming, and its 175 residents explodes with 3,000 chili lovers for the town’s annual chili cookoff, which attracts serious, world-champion chili cooks.

RJ
Renée Jean

June 20, 20238 min read

Gloria and Mike Stevens have been all over the country for the past three decades cooking their chili. Gloria's green chili won this year's Chugwater Chili Cookoff.
Gloria and Mike Stevens have been all over the country for the past three decades cooking their chili. Gloria's green chili won this year's Chugwater Chili Cookoff. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

When Jerry and Candy Ford moved to Colorado from Texas four months ago, their list of moving must-haves had something unusual on it. It was their set of Lone Star chili spices.

The spices are among their not-so-secret ingredients for a chili that has ranked as high as 10th in the world at the Terlingua International Chili Championship held in Texas every year in November.

“We decided to bring (the spices) along, just in case some chili cookoffs came up,” Jerry Ford told Cowboy State Daily, grinning from ear to ear as he stirred a little pot of chili on a Wendall Rankin camping stove in Chugwater on Saturday.

When the Fords learned about the Chugwater Chili Cookoff, which is a state qualifier for Terlingua, they knew immediately they had to be there. 

At first, the chili champs were a little dubious about a small town of 175 hosting 3,000 people for a chili cookoff. 

But all that vanished once they were in Chugwater and having a great time Saturday.

“This is a really good venue,” Jerry Ford said. “It’s almost like a Sturgis thing.”

Candy Ford, meanwhile, liked the people.

“They’re just amazingly nice,” she said. “Like super, super nice. And the activities, the food trucks, the festival. This whole thing has been amazing. We don’t usually get to cook like this. This is my favorite type of cookoff.”

About Those Wendall Rankin Cookstoves

The stove the Fords use to cook with is something of an icon in the world of chili champions. 

The artist Wendall Rankin has painted 800 or so Coleman camping stoves with unique collages. Many of them were given to grand prize winners at Terlingua or other top chili contests. 

Although at one time, one could commission a painted camping stove, most of the time they are hard-earned, which makes them a true mark of distinction. 

Each camp stove is different, and they all have little secrets hidden in the paintings somewhere. The Fords’ camp stove has two sets of eyeballs placed randomly in the drawing. 

Rankin no longer makes these camp stoves, which makes them even more coveted now. Those who have them already recognize them for what they are, and know right away that behind that stove is likely a tough competitor.

Ford and his wife’s chili tied for 10th overall in Terlingua one year. 

“We felt really blessed about that, because there’s people who have been cooking for 30 years that’s never walked across that stage, and we got the big bronze pepper trophies and things like that,” Jerry Ford said.

Candy Ford won her camp stove, though, when she took the Texas Lady State Championship in 2015. 

She wouldn’t dream of going to a competition without it now. She has pinned a pink horseshoe to the camp stove with a magnet — something else she got at the Texas Lady State Championship. 

Together they are her good luck charms.

  • Candy and Jerry Ford at the Chugwater Chili Cookoff.
    Candy and Jerry Ford at the Chugwater Chili Cookoff. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Jerry Ford adds a little beef tallow to his chili at the very end of cooking to give the chili a nice sheen for the judges.
    Jerry Ford adds a little beef tallow to his chili at the very end of cooking to give the chili a nice sheen for the judges. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Campstove typical of those used for serious chili contests.
    Campstove typical of those used for serious chili contests. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)
  • The cover of Candy Ford's Wendall Rankins camp stove.
    The cover of Candy Ford's Wendall Rankins camp stove. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Wyoming Game Chili was the People's Choice Winner at this year's Chugwater Chili Cookoff.
    Wyoming Game Chili was the People's Choice Winner at this year's Chugwater Chili Cookoff. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Gloria Stevens' green chili won first place, left, while her husband Mike's red chili placed third. At right, Jerry Ford's recipe that won second place at the Chugwater Chili Cookoff.
    Gloria Stevens' green chili won first place, left, while her husband Mike's red chili placed third. At right, Jerry Ford's recipe that won second place at the Chugwater Chili Cookoff. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

Funny Story About Secret Ingredients

Many who go to a serious chili competition may think there are secret ingredients involved, including Jerry, when he started out. 

He’d heard talk of a particular spice that was supposed to be a magic ingredient. Terlingua Dust.

“Being a brand new cook at the time, the first time I went to Terlingua I gathered up a jar full of dirt,” Jerry Ford recalled. “And then for the next year, I would sprinkle that dirt in my chili, thinking that was what everyone did for good luck. Terlingua dust.”

Turns out, though, Terlingua Dust was the name of a spice mix, not the actual dirt in Terlingua.

“I’ve seen people put some weird stuff in their chili,” Jerry Ford said. “And I mean, that’s OK. If they like it, it’s their chili.”

But the real truth is, the great chili masters of the international circuit don’t have secret ingredients. In fact, the world champion chili recipes are all posted online for one and all to see.

“I can give anybody my recipe, but they’re not going to cook it the same way I do,” Jerry Ford said. “They don’t know how much heat to put. They don’t know what kind of boil to put. And they don’t know the consistency that I want it at.”

In fact, Jerry and his wife use the exact same recipe. Though they don’t always get the same result.

“Sometimes she places first, second or third, and I don’t even make it out of the trash can,” he said. “So it’s really weird, and you know altitudes has a lot to do with it. Humidity has a lot to do with it. It’s a really detailed science to get what you want.”

No Taste Testing Along The Way

The Fords also don’t do a whole lot of taste testing along the way. There’s a little in early stages, just to make sure nothing is going drastically wrong with their tried-and-true recipe.

On Saturday, Jerry Ford didn’t feel super happy with his chili — although he’d go on to win second place with it.

“It’s not really hot enough, and there’s not enough salt in it,” he said. “You can see the judges are drinking beer at the table. So, I’m gonna need a little bit more salt. I’ll tweak it the last 15 minutes or so.”

Candy Ford, meanwhile, said she rarely tweaks anything.

“You have to have faith in your recipe,” she said. “Because it can change. You can taste it one minute and it’ll be salty. You add sugar, and the next minute it’ll be so sugary because you overdid it. You’ve just gotta trust the recipe.”

Many destroy a perfectly good chili in the last few minutes, Jerry said.

“They panic,” he said. “So we try to refrain from that. The only thing I may adjust is the salt. I’ll taste it before we turn it in, and if it’s not salty enough, I’ll add just a sprinkle of salt on it.”

  • Kids dive fact-first into the pie-eating competition at the Chugwater Chili Cookoff on Saturday.
    Kids dive fact-first into the pie-eating competition at the Chugwater Chili Cookoff on Saturday. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Winners of the pie-eating contest.
    Winners of the pie-eating contest. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Wagon rides at the 2023 Chugwater Chili Cookoff.
    Wagon rides at the 2023 Chugwater Chili Cookoff. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)
  • A competitor prepares her smoker for the cookoff.
    A competitor prepares her smoker for the cookoff. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

Variations For Different Regions

All that said, the recipe isn’t the exact same everywhere they go. In Missouri, for example, they stop at a fast-food place to grab a few ketchup packets; while in Wichita Falls, Texas or Louisiana, they add extra spices.

“I have to make it so hot (there) that it will melt metal or you won’t place,” he said.

With it being his first go-round for Chugwater, he’s not sure what the judges want. 

“I don’t know if it’s going to hit or not,” he said. “It’s going to be a crapshoot.”

Jerry Ford added that for him, the event is a warmup for this coming weekend in Grand Lakes, Colorado, for the state championship there.

“We’re bringing the international champion up here from Texas to cook in Colorado next week, and his name is Chris Hudson,” Jerry Ford said. “And like I said, they’re at the Mother Road cook-off right now in Missouri.”

Not For Money, But For Love

Ford would ultimately take second place with his chili, while his friends Gloria and Mike Stevens from New Mexico, set up behind him, took third for Mike’s red chili and first for Gloria’s green chili. 

There are no monetary prizes for the CASI cookoffs, the Fords told Cowboy State Daily. 

But there’s something that money doesn’t buy, and that’s new friends from all over the country.

Just as Jerry Ford was explaining why he’s kept doing these chili cookouts for so long, Gloria Stevens snuck up behind him with one of her homegrown hatch chilis, straight from her garden, to try.

“Wow, what a kick,” Jerry Ford exclaimed after trying the pepper. “Whoo, hooo there it is. Wow.”

“Aren’t they good?” Stevens asked, grinning like a schoolgirl.

That’s exactly the kind of camaraderie that has kept the Fords and the Stevens in the chili game for so long.  

Mike Stevens was the world red chili champion in 2014, while Gloria was Colorado state champ in green chili and has her own Wendall Rankin stove. But what she values most are all the friendships she’s made along the way.

“We know the nicest people all over the United States,” she said. “And it never goes away. I mean, some of us are, you know, getting older and laying back, but we still Facebook each other and it’s just so nice.”

Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.

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RJ

Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter