Annual cook-off brings charity, chili and fun to Ottumwa Pro Balloon Races

Around 15 cooks prepare their dishes at the Balloon Races' annual chili cook-off.

It was all about chili, charity and fun at the Ottumwa Pro Balloon Races Saturday afternoon.

Chili connoisseurs from Iowa, Missouri and Illinois didn't just beat the afternoon heat, they added to it, in the form of simmering, spicy pots of chili. The chili cook-off isn't just a staple of the Ottumwa Pro Balloon Races, it's also a way to give back.

"All of our proceeds that we make today from the tasting cups to the registration fees from the cooks goes to a charity," said Raylene Johnson, co-organizer of the chili cook-off. "Our charity here is the Hospice of Davis and Wapello Counties. And we've been doing it for them for about nine years, I think."

These cooks know what they're doing. Each state has a number of cook-offs each year and each chef has to earn a certain number of points in order to qualify for the Chili Championships in Texas. The chili is cooked to CASI standards (Chili Appreciation Society International), which means only meat and sauce is used; no macaroni, beans or other fillers. For many, it's all about getting the spice just right.

"Little bit of heat, you want a little bit of flavor and aroma, color," said chef David Thordarson of Bloomfield, Iowa. "But the heat - I want you to have a little burn, but I want it to go away in about 20-30 seconds. If I can hit that, you normally do pretty good, but if you make it too hot, a lot of times you're doomed."

Though each pot of chili is blindly judged based on its red color, aroma, consistency, taste and aftertaste, these chefs know what the cook-offs are really all about -- tradition, friendship and, of course, some good tasting chili.

"It's fun cooking chili, I love to cook chili and meeting all these people, I know everybody here, been with them many times," said Gary Christensen of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "And also the balloon festival is most enjoyable."

"The chili and talking to people, different things, that's the best part," said Russell Bales of Floris, Iowa.

There are chili cook-offs across the United States, so what brings these chefs back to Ottumwa each year?

"Because it's fun!" said Steve Dowdy of Kansas City, Missouri. "Why else would you go anywhere if it's not fun? Long time ago, I said if it's not fun, I'm not doing it anymore, and I don't!"

The cook-off is fun for the cooks, fun for the taste-testers and fun for all. To learn more about CASI and the Chili Championships, click here.

Results of Saturday's chili cook-off is as follows:

1st Place: Steve Dowdy, Kansas City, MO

2nd Place: Virgil Johnson, Ottumwa, IA

3rd Place: Dennis Lane, Cedar Rapids, IA

Kid's Competition:

1st Place: Taryn Sanders, age 9

2nd Place: Alec Sanders, age 11


1st Place: Steve Dowdy, Kansas City, MO

2nd Place: Gary Christensen, Cedar Rapids, IA

3rd Place: Geri Dowdy, Kansas City, MO