— Margaret Cousins
Not one to perpetuate rumors nor to instigate conflict between natural rivals, I will hasten to clarify the ensuing gossip to which you are about to be exposed comes from sources no better than second, third or fourth-hand, and beyond.
With the above disclaimor now properly disclaimed, let me tell you what I just heard ... and don’t tell anybody else because you never know who’s listening.
Mum’s the word.
Seems an off-duty fireman was overheard the other day in a public setting telling an acquaintance, “You better not miss that Emergency Service Chili Cookoff over at the mall on Saturday. Everybody knows firefighters make the best chili. It’s in our DNA.”
Came the acquaintance’s response, “But I thought I heard a bunch of others will be in the mix? I heard you guys are just one team, that cops will be there and other firemen ... and even some 911 dudes? Maybe even the ambulance folks?”
“You ever tasted a cop’s chili?” the firefighter asked.
“Well ... no, I guess not.”
“You ever tasted a fireman’s chili?” the inquisition continued.
“Don’t reckon,” the acquaintance admitted. “I ain’t tasted chili made by a paramedic, EMT nor 911 dispatcher neither. Just my wife’s. Chili’s just chili, ain’t it? Some a little hotter than others?”
“Let me tell you about heat,” the firefighter proclaimed. “Nobody knows heat like a fireman knows heat. You show up at the mall Saturday, we’ll show you.”
The acquaintance scanned the firefighter’s towering features and quietly measured the community hero’s conviction.
“Alright then,” he told the fireman. “I’ll be there. Can I bring the young’uns?”
“You can bring the whole family, your brothers and sisters, and your mama and daddy if you want,” the firefighter roared. “You can even bring the family dog and kitchen sink. Just pay your $5 for a ballot and you can taste-test the whole inferno. And then you can vote.”
On another day and in yet another public setting, two good friends were slinging lighthearted barbs. One was a police officer. The other was in law enforcement as well, only for another jurisdiction. Both were prideful chaps. Each claimed possession of the finest chili recipe east of the Rockies.
“Hey, good buddy,” one roared, slapping his uniformed cohort on the shoulder. “I heard you guys signed up for the Chili Cookoff. Man, we are gonna put a hurt on you guys!”
“Yeah ... right,” his counterpart grinned. “You folks over there on your side, you don’t know chili. Chump, it’s more than a can of beans, some ground beef and hot sauce. Chili is magic. It’s like love. Once you’ve had the best, you’ll never want anything less.”
“That’s what I’m saying, dude,” the first officer retorted. “We are the best. Our chili puts the Bush Brothers to shame. Those guys may know cowpeas, but they know diddly-squat about good chili. Neither do your guys. And Hormel? Get to the back of the line!”
“Whoa!” the second laughed with a step back. “Sounds like we’ve been called out!”
“Sounds like!” his compatriot echoed. He added, “And have you heard? The firemen will be there. At least two groups! And a bunch of 911 guys from across the county line, and maybe even some EMTs.”
“EMTs? 911? Huh?” the other declared with a slap of his forehead. “What are they thinking?”
In a fit of laughter, the first officer bellowed, “We’ll have to put’em all in handcuffs, they’ll be so mad after the whuppin’ they take from our chili!”
“You mean ... from our chili!” the second corrected.
“I said it right the first time, Pedro,” the first officer heehawed.
Both smirked and fashioned a pose as if holding a first-place trophy.
Their good humor continuing, the first officer said to the second, “You know what would be even funnier than you guys winning?”
“Whut?” the second asked.
“If the firefighters won!”
The two roared in unison and went about their rounds.
In an unidentified firehall, a veteran fireman sat quietly, seemingly lost in thought. His face spoke a calm sadness.
“What’s wrong with you?” a firefighting brother hauling a heavy coil of hose asked as he approached.
A sly grin creased the face of the first as he answered, “I was just trying to imagine how hot the cops are gonna feel when our chili burns their pants off!”
“And all the others!” the other agreed.
In another part of town, two average Joe’s were looking forward to the weekend.
“Hey Joe, what’re you up to this weekend?” Joe asked.
“You kiddin’?” Joe replied. “I’ll be over to the mall Saturday ... makin’ chili. Grandpa’s family recipe.”
“You too?” Joe asked. “Me too! I signed up in that new Open Division. I’ve already wrote my acceptance speech for first place!”
“How can you win?” Joe retorted. “They can’t have two winners in the same division?”
The Joe’s laughed like brothers.
“Well, see ‘ya Joe. Gotta go. Need to practice my stirrin’.”
“Me too, Joe! Me too!”
Across town in a tiny neighborhood bordered by two narrow streets, a slow, winding creek and a church parking lot, yet another chili dream glowed. The aged and wrinkled face with no name gently pulled a yellowed, crinkled paper from a food-stained plastic box — a recipe box, one filled with years of family love and a lifetime of rolling pins, flour dust and kitchen bowls.
It was the recipe that had raised six kids, 19 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
It was one of her favorites.
And she knew it by heart.
(Editor’s Note: The first-time Emergency Service Chili Cookoff, to include an Open Division, will be held Saturday, Oct. 6, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., in the Kmart parking lot at Bradley Square Mall. Sponsored by the Cleveland Daily Banner Relay for Life Team, proceeds will benefit the American Cancer Society. Contact Angela Mathis at ACS at 423-855-2778 for information and registration).