O-R chili cook-off, 25 years later
A young Barbara Miller presents a deli tray to Ron McCluskey, manager of the deli department of the former Jefferson Avenue Foodland on Jan. 23, 1989, for winning the third annual O-R Super Bowl of Chili cook-off.
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The weekend before the Super Bowl was the date of one of the Observer-Reporter’s most successful promotional events: the Super Bowl of Chili. Here, square dancers entertain the crowd on Jan. 21, 1990, at the Washington Mall.
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For many years in Washington County, the terms “Super Bowl” and “Chili” were linked because of the Observer-Reporter Super Bowl of Chili contest.
Twenty-five years ago this winter, I was in charge of my first – and only – Observer-Reporter Super Bowl of Chili cook-off.
The 1989 event was the third of such contests, which would have made the first one in 1987. Initiating the event were newsroom staffers Phyllis Ross and Byron Smialek, who died last year. Phyllis said the idea grew out of a conversation she had at the newspaper that everyone had his or own variation of the dish.
A team representing the Jefferson Avenue Foodland won the first Super Bowl of Chili cook-off. Twenty-one chefs participated in the contest, and hoisting the first-place trophy at Washington Mall were Chip Garrett, deli manager Ron McCluskey, Sam Hall and Mary Rice. A front-page photo that appeared Jan. 19, 1987, showed Washington Fire chief Paul Brookman, pathologist Dr. Ernest Abernathy and the Observer-Reporter’s own Tom Northrop as judges of the inaugural event, which Byron said was attended by 200 people. Super Bowl (of football) participants that year were John Elway’s Denver Broncos (sound familiar?) and the New York Giants. Byron, having covered the glory years of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, desperately hoped for a repeat in 1989, because the grand prize was a Super Bowl party and dangling the Steelers’ return to the big game that in front of the chili-cooking public would really rev interest.
The Steelers were 5-11 that year in the 1988 season, but winning season or no winning season, the Super Bowl of Chili was enjoying a great run. In 1990, for the Super Bowl of Chili IV, an inquiry came to the O-R switchboard in September about saving the date of the next cook-off. Washington County Sheep and Wool Growers were submitting a lamb-based chili. A people’s choice category was added, and thousands of the people were showing up at Washington Mall for the event.
But back to the 1989 Super Bowl of Chili. No one knew that I was a relative chili neophyte. As the child of a German-American mother and a Slovak-American father, typical meals in our household were likely to be sauerbraten or kolbassi.
But by the 1970s, my mother was the proud owner of an early version of the slow cooker, and the recipe booklet for the appliance featured a chili recipe. She stirred her first pot of chili and it was a big hit with the family. It was so nice to come home from work or school and be greeted with the savory, spicy tomatoey aroma.
Washington & Jefferson College Commons ladled up bowls of chili, and I think that’s where I first encountered toppings of shredded cheese and sour cream. The woman who would become my mother-in-law used bulk sausage to add a sage component to her chili, which I grew to love.
So by 1989, after Phyllis departed the newsroom for a local grocery store chain, I found myself running the chili cook-off.
Terry Hazlett was master of ceremonies of the event. Byron recruited a few Steelers or ex-Steelers as judges. I remember that now-deceased Washington County Judge David L. Gilmore and Phyllis Ross also graciously accepted the invitation to do the honors.
Categories were hottest edible, Texas-style (beanless) chili and chili with beans.
History repeated itself and a copy of the Observer-Reporter from Monday Jan. 23, 1989 – the day after the Super Bowl – shows me and ORPP (the Observer-Reporter Paper Person) presenting a deli tray the previous day to Ron McCluskey, manager of the deli department of the Jefferson Avenue Foodland. McCluskey, according to the photo caption, actually entertained 100 at the Super Bowl party at the Knights of Pythias Canon Lodge No. 204 in Canonsburg.
The photo appeared on Page A2. The front page was devoted to the exploits of one Joe Montana, who led his San Francisco 49ers to a 20-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII, “making the 49ers the team of the decade.”
Alas, the Super Bowl of Chili went by the wayside in the 1990s. In the intervening years, food safety has become a concern, and some high-profile stories have emerged, for various reasons, in conjunction with bake sale pies, undercooked hamburger and raw spinach, to name just a few. Because Washington and Greene counties do not have their own health departments, the State Department of Agriculture governs this area.
The department’s press secretary, Samantha Elliott Krepps, responded via email to an inquiry about what an organization should keep in mind when planning food-related events or reviving a chili cook-off.
“Under the current law and regulations a one-day event (like a chili cook-off) would be exempt from licensing,” Krepps wrote. “We would encourage them to follow good food safety practices as outlined in our nonprofit food safety information. We would typically not get involved in a chili cook-off as most consumers understand that the foods potentially came from individual’s homes. If that isn’t clear, the Department of Agriculture suggests that the hosts of the event use language similar to the current law addressing the ‘pie incident,’ that there be signs to inform consumers that the food is not prepared in a licensed or regulated kitchen.”
The “pie incident” to which she referred stemmed from the 2009 St. Cecilia Church fish fry in Beaver County, where a state inspector, during a routine inspection of the kitchen for a license renewal, put the kibosh on selling home-baked desserts.
Under existing state law, St. Cecilia, a licensed facility, was accepting home-donated pies from church members to serve with their licensed meals. The pies were, technically, food from an unapproved source.
Legislation later amended state law to allow this under certain conditions if: the organization is a nonprofit and the food is donated. A consumer disclosure on the menu or signage about donated food applies only if the events are licensed.