Spicing up Southern Appalachia
Though the weather is getting colder and winter is emerging on the horizon, Doug Weaver is all smiles.
It’s open season for chili.
“Chili itself is not just a dish, it’s a state of mind,” he said. “There’s no better spicy food than chili. It’s an institution.”
Co-owner/head chef at The Sweet Onion in Waynesville, Weaver was raised in a family who held spicy food in high regard. He looks at making chili as a celebration, an embracing food that brings people together from all walks of life.
“There’s not something about chili that has you just sit down and talk about your day,” he said. “You’re not just making food for the family, you’re making something millions of other people have made and they’ve enjoyed it. You’re evoking the spirit of the chili.”
Heavily rooted in Texas and the Southwest, chili has become an American staple. From cosmopolitan cities to backwoods roadhouses, the food finds its way into the hungry hands and mouths of people looking to fill up their bellies with something warm, tasty and quick.
“It was made for the working class,” Weaver said. “Spread it out and make a whole lot with a little. It’s something you’d put into a bowl, eat it, get full and go back to work.”
But, with southern cuisine more associated with barbeque than chili, there are a growing number of people around this region aiming to not only change that, but also spice it up in their own backyard.
Last Saturday, the 22nd annual Bryson City Chamber Chili Cook-off showcased several different styles of chili, each as different and unique as the creator themselves.
Lined up like a classic car show, participants “open the hood” of their large metal pots. The smell of roasted peppers, beans, onions and beef wafts through the air, gleaming like chrome on a muscle car engine. The curious stroll up and take a peak into the stew, enthusiastically handing their small cup over in hopes of tasting greatness.
Representing the Sons of Confederate Veterans, David Gunter is part of Camp 1917 of the Jackson Rangers. His “Cannon Ball Chili” has won the competition twice, something he’s proud of. But, no matter its place in the hearts of voters, Gunter truly enjoys making it, refining his methods and sharing the results.
“I like the camaraderie of the people,” he said. “And, maybe you’ll win, or maybe not. It’s all about having fun doing this, serving good food.”
Putting together a concoction of ground chuck beef, corn, black beans and an array of peppers, Gunter stresses the importance of a meat that’s not too lean, with just a enough fat to provoke enough flavor.
Across the way, at the “Hatfield’s and McCoy’s” tent, Nancy Jones and her “Smoky Mountain Chili” are a perennial favorite, taking home gold more than a few times. The group also makes their own cornbread, which she feels is essential to the entire experience of enjoying her chili.
“I like a lot of different spices,” she said, scooping out a cup. “I add my spices in sequence, not all at once, so that way you get all the flavors emerging right at the end. Then, I put in a few secret ingredients.”
With hundreds of people milling about the streets of downtown Bryson City, tasting each dish and enjoying the sunshine cascading down the Great Smoky Mountains, Jones has witnessed the growth of the cook-off year after year. It’s a great thing for Bryson City, and an even better thing for the state of chili in Western North Carolina.
“It’s wonderful everyone has their own ideas,” she said. “People are coming from all over because they’re hearing about all the great chili in Bryson City.”
Chef at the River’s End Restaurant, Daniel Dutton was serving up three types of chili (chicken, beef and vegetarian) at the Nantahala Outdoor Center tent. A Texas native, Dutton has been making chili since he was a kid, something that he said fit perfectly with the football culture of the Lone Star State. When asked his key to a great chili, he stops scooping for a moment.
“Hours,” he chuckled. “Hours of time. In all, these three pots of chili took around 21 hours.”
In his sixth year at the cook-off, Dutton feels his success in chili comes from using local meats and vegetables, with the idea that the fresher the better for an ideal dish.
“Our chicken, beef and vegetables are from around here,” he said. “For me, I hope everybody enjoys it as much as I take the time to make it.”
Though Bryson City appears to be taking the reins in terms of Appalachian chili, others in the region want to build upon that. Manager of City Bakery in Waynesville, Jeff Smith is gearing up to offer his own interpretation of spice and style.
“One of my favorite things is slow cooking, and chili lends itself to that,” he said. “It lets the flavors develop, and you can layer lots of different things. You can put stuff in there you might not normally put in other meals.”
Using everything from Worcestershire sauce to cocoa powder, cinnamon to chipotle, and beyond, Smith notes it all starts with a good cut of meat and knowing how to get the best out of it. From there you throw it together, then let it sit and do its thing. Along with Weaver, the two both want to light a fire under the region, get people out and about and enjoying chili.
“I think people should eat more spicy food across the board,” Weaver said. “It improves your immune system and brain function. I feel we as a society are leaning more towards mediocre palates. If more people eat chili, they’ll be more minded on spices.”
Taking into account the exploding brewery scene in Western North Carolina, Weaver looks to plug chili into that economical and cultural energy swirling around the area.
“I don’t know if there’s any food that goes better with beer than chili,” he said. “As the one industry has taken off, I think the other will follow.”
Weaver wants to get the ball rolling in Waynesville. Whether it be a culinary block party, with each restaurant trying their hand at a signature chili, or just continuing to tweak and play with his own creations, it’s all about getting out of the mindset of what chili should be, and more into what chili can be.
“It’s very flexible and completely up to your own interpretation,” he said. “Every house has their own chili recipe. It’s not something that every bowl needs to be stamped out the exact same way.”
But, regardless of where one stands on the matter, chili has and will remain a beloved meal, with each experience differing from the next. More spice or less, meat or vegetarian, the face behind it is always one of pride and individuality.
“People that make spicy food are spicy people,” Weaver said. “It’s got something to do with the food, but it’s got a whole lot to do with the personality of who makes it.”
Hungry for heat?
The Downtown Sylva Association will be hosting its 4th annual Chili Fest from noon to 4 p.m. Nov. 3 at Bridge Park. The afternoon will consist of chili, live music and crafts. To sample the chili, tickets are $5 for the general public and $2 for students. Applications for the chili contest are now being accepted. www.mainstreetsylva.com.