The Golden Pepper

Every year in late February, about the time when winter's icy grip begins to loosen ever so slightly, a chili contest is held in a barn near the town of Chelsea. We've participated for the last three years in this mid-winter competition, and no matter how unique our recipe, we've always come in second place. The first year we made spicy oyster chili- and lost. The next year we cooked cajun crawfish chili- and lost. This year's recipe was atomic jalepeno chili. Read on to see if the 2007 contest brought us victory or if we, once again, walked away the Susan Lucci of the Waterloo Road chili contest.

For weeks prior to this evening, we mulled over various recipe options. It had to be spicy, but not too spicy. It had to be different from the dozen other entrees, but not too different lest we offend the purists. Coming up with the perfect chili recipe is as much art as it is science. We're not about to give up the exact ingrediants of this years concoction, but we'll offer this little secret: be sure to remove the seeds from the jalepeno peppers. You want heat, not grenade mouth.

After the meat has been cooked and the veggies cut, the second trick involves the crock pot process. Simmer too long and it turns into soggy mush. If you don't cook long enough, the flavors don't blend properly. Optimum time for the crock pot stage is three to four hours. Only at RR will you get these precious nuggets of culinary advice.

By the time we arrived at the barn, our competitors had their entrees waiting and warming. We had a close call on the way- we took a quick left turn at high speed and our crock pot flipped on its side. Luckily we duct-taped the lid to the pot, but we still had spillage. Dammit- not a good omen.

When it was time for eating, we were worried. The competition this year was especially tough- wood duck chili, seafood and shrimp chili, and multiple delicious variations of venison chili (wild game submissions are varsity-squad challenges. The cook has the added avantage of boasting about the adventure of hunting and killing the main ingrediant). After everyone sampled the entrees and after the Tums bottle was passed around, the voting occurred. We waited anxiously for the outcome. Like a college basketball team that's progressed year after year to the Sweet Sixteen but no further, we refused to succumb to the trap of over-confidence.

And our diligence and humility paid off. We were awarded the 2007 Golden Pepper. It now sits in a place of honor on our fireplace mantel- proof the universe is indeed a benevolent place for those that dare to dream big and make the necessary sacrifices and never give up when all seems lost.



Up north in the piney woods of Michigan, between Grand Rapids and Traverse City, you'll find the town of Irons. The area is home to three things:

1) Blue ribbon trout, steelhead, and salmon fishing on the nearby Manistee and Pere Marquette rivers.

2) Miles and miles of snowmobiling trails on the million acre Huron-Manistee National Forest.

3) Where actor James Earl Jones grew up (born in Mississippi, Jones was raised by his maternal grandparents in nearby Dublin before graduating from the University of Michigan). Who would've imagined that Darth Vader spent his childhood amidst the forested tranquility of northwest Michigan?

Irons is a one-stoplight town, so small the stoplight blinks yellow. Aside from a realty office specializing in riverfront property and a grocery store that also sells kerosene and rifle ammo, the Oak Grove Tavern is one of two places in town to get a bite to eat. During the winter months, when the snow is deep and fresh, there are more snowmobiles than cars in the parking lot. Friday night we arrived just before the weekend rush of snowmobilers settled in to party. A DJ was spinning new country music songs. We asked him to play some Marty Robbins. He said Marty was too old for his taste. Private note to the owner of the Oak Grove: fire your DJ immediately. He has no business working at a roadside honky tonk.

The ceiling at the Oak Grove is covered in dollar bills, many so old they're black with soot from decades of cigarette smoke. It's probably the bar owner's retirement fund, although he may want to wash the bills at the laundromat before taking to the bank.


Winners and Losers

It's time for the annual winter poker game. What was once a weekly occurence twenty years ago now happens twice a year, thanks to the exponential increases in career demands and family obligations.

Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be. Two things remain the same, though: mercy is non-existent and the insults are plentiful. What a relief it is to see some things stay the same in this ever-changing world.

Here's an inside glimpse into how this finely-oiled machine operates:

A game is called and cards are dealt. Most are poker variations, but many are simple luck games. With names like Guts and Bullshit and Screw Your Neighbor, the pots can grow quickly and empires can be made and destroyed within minutes.

The bluffing goes full-scale as the bets and calls inflate the pot.

After all bets have ended and the cards are laid on the table,

one man will revel in the thrill of victory
and the other will suffer the agony of defeat.

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