Thursday, October 27, 2016

WCCC 2016

In October 2004, Ghon and I attended our first World Chili Championship Cookoff (WCCC). We’d been cooking chili for years of course, me since 1990 as a junior cook and him since 1996, but only recently had started cooking more events sanctioned by the International Chili Society (ICS).

In mid-September, we competed in the Chesapeake Regional Chili Cookoff. I came in second place to a not so great pot of chili. Really. Sure, some cooks will boast about their pot and sometimes feel they were wronged by the judges when the tasted the winning bowl. But this bowl; it wasn’t chili. BBQ perhaps, but not chili. Some of our friends tasted the winning chili before we did, and told me I was robbed. The scorekeeper told me they calculated scores twice. I lost. I was robbed!

Two weeks later, we were competing in the DC State Cookoff for the first time. During announcements, I was named the highest placing rookie, defined as the cook who placed the highest as a first time participant of the event. Winners were announced starting at 10th place. Somewhere along the way, perhaps around 5th, 6th or 7th, it’s really unimportant; Ghon was called. Now we knew I was higher than that. The closer we got the more I worried. I was so nervous. I remember muttering “please don’t call my name, please don’t call my name” over and over. Third place, and it’s still not me.

A chili bridesmaid is a cook that places second. And second. And sometimes second again. Always the runner up, and never the winner. I didn’t want to be a bridesmaid.

It’s time to announce 2nd place. I’m so nervous, I’m practically crying. “Please don’t say my name, please don’t say my name.”  The Chief Judge, Fred Bell, listened, and didn’t say my name. I’m damn near hysterics at this point. I bury my face into Ghon’s chest and change my tune. “Please say my name, please say my name,” it total fear that perhaps that rookie thing was a fluke and I wasn’t the highest placing rookie and someone else’s name would be called.

Kim Eckerly.

Yes, Eckley, but with an R stuck in there. But dang it, it was me. I qualified for the World Championships that were less than a week away, in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’ll never forget the amazing experience at WCCC. Nor the moment I was called to the finals table for red chili. I was one of the first of our close chili friends to ever make finals. And being relatively new to ICS, and our first Worlds, I remembered the quiet in the crowd when my name was called. My few friends there cheered, but you could almost hear everyone else asking, “Kim, who?” The applause and cheers for "regulars" was loud. When my name was called, well, there were some polite claps. Finding out I was 7th place – absolutely amazing.

Fast forward a few years. We continued to compete. We had kids and I cooked a lot less. Ghon went to Vegas again in 2008, with me left at home, fresh out of a Cesarean birth and a with a week old Jonathan. Jonathan went to his first ICS event in Kingston, NY at about 2, maybe 3 weeks old. I started cooking a lot less, as it wasn’t easy to manage an infant and a pot of red. Or at least not for us.
We took the kids to a few Worlds cook-offs. Jonathan was just over a year at his first WCCC in Charleston, WV.  The kids traveled with us to WCCC in Manchester, NH, another in Charleston. Chili is family, and they were being well introduced to it.

The last few years, we did a lot less chili cooking and a lot more chili judging, with Ghon serving as the Chief Judge, and I the Scorekeeper. With his retail work schedule, getting weekends off wasn’t easy. The weekends he could get time off were for judging, not cooking. He really missed the competition. If you didn’t know, Ghon was extremely competitive, and cooking was a good way for him to do so.

Since he'd left his retail job in pursuit of life, farming. photography and happiness, Ghon was determined to cook more this year. Jonathan was playing baseball still, so Ghon made a one day trip to New York City to compete by himself. The following weekend, he'd planned to do a back to back event in New England, but a few days before, the Sunday event was cancelled. Plans changed, and he went to Wheeling WV on June 4 to compete. Jonathan and I spent the day together, going to his last came of the season, end of season party, a birthday party and something else thrown in there too. Genevieve went with Ghon, who came home a winner in the Chili Verde competition. He was once again headed to WCCC! 

That week, he booked our airfare. Ghon was determined to get time for just us and felt it would be best to route us through Vegas, and for a week long trip. 

June 4; he won.
June 13; he had surgery.
June 18; he died. 

Just two short weeks later, after being so excited to compete - and win - again, he was gone. I'd had to decide whether or not to attend the PA State Cookoff on Labor Day weekend, which the kids and I did. I wasn't so sure about going to WCCC. Really, I didn't think there was an option, it was just plain obvious to me, it was a no go.

But then, a youth division was announced, and I mentioned it to Jonathan. Despite a hard loss (for him) in PA, he wanted to go to the World's, wear Dad's shirt, and compete. A quick check to the school calendar, and seeing the travel dates would coincide with Fall Break, I booked us airfare to Reno, NV for the 50th Anniversary ICS World's Championship Chili Cookoff. 

I must be crazy.

Carol Hancock, the CEO of the ICS called me after Ghon's death to offer her condolences and ask if there was anything she could do for us. At that time, I couldn't think of a thing. A few days later, I knew what I needed. Each cook that qualifies earns an apron with their name and qualifying event on it as well as a participant medal. I asked Carol for Ghon's, even though he wouldn't be there, as this last qualification meant a lot. She graciously obliged. When I was given his apron at WCCC, I felt (and I mean NO disrespect by this) like I was being handed the flag that covered a fallen soldier's coffin. It was handed to me with two hands. I took it, with tears welling in my eyes, and just hugged it. When I went to get his medal, the same familiar tears came back to my eyes.

I can't tell you how many people said, "don't make me cry."  I can't tell you how many tears were still shed, whether it be in front or behind me.

Getting ready for WCCC, Jonathan made his own recipe. I guided him on the basics, I helped him with hot pots, but he sat at his table in Reno and cooked his own pot of chili. He wore his dad's shirt, carried Dad's lucky chicken, and sported a picture pin - of him and Ghon at the first cookoff he competed in.

Jonathan and Genevieve with ICS CEO, Carol Hancock

There is one thing neither Jonathan or I did for the cookoff though, and that was cut his meat. Because Ghon planned to do two cookoffs the weekend of the 4th, he had two batches of meat prepared. Jonathan used the last batch of meat Ghon cut.
Chili turn in
Announcements came, and Jonathan was called in 6th place, Honorable Mention. He was happy to hear his name, which most cooks say, but really mean, "I want to hear my name in first place."  But he was genuinely happy. He never once complained, he never once said he should have one, and he told everyone how we was 6th, and was damn proud. Which makes me damn proud as well.

Waiting for announcements.
Hearing his name!

Youth Division Winners!
Come Sunday, it was time for announcements, and I received a huge shock. Along side other great ICS cooks, chairman, and judges, I was presented an All Star award, with Ghon and my name on it. When Carol presented the award, she started crying. I started crying when she did; and kept crying. To be recognized for our volunteer work, which is work, but so much fun, was incredible. I know Ghon would have been shocked. Without a doubt. He lived wondering what his legacy would be, what his purpose was, and yearning for some type of recognition he felt he never had. And here, it was, and least for this part of his life. Recognition for something we did because we could, because we enjoyed it, and because it was the right thing to do. To be honored along side those that showed us some ropes; an honor indeed.

2016 All Stars
I held that award all evening.

It still brings tears to my eyes when I look at it.

I took two kids, by myself, on an airplane, well, several, to Reno NV and back for a 4 day trip. Two of those days, were mainly on planes. But why? Why in the world would I do that?

I've said it before, chili cooks are family. They are the cousins you love to hang out with, the aunts and uncles you think are a little odd, but turn out to be the coolest people you know, the aunt or uncle that gives you the ebbie jeebies and makes you want to run and hide. Visits are a few hours a weekend through the year, and then, the big reunion comes in the fall. You meet the new family members, those that are newer to ICS or make the trip to WCCC for the first time.When you get to the reunion, you are introduced to your long lost cousins, put names and faces together and just party. And because we are a family, we know that kids are the future. They belong, are encouraged to participate and are part of the future of the family legacy.

It's been said that friends are the family you choose. And I'll continue to choose these folks over and over. They've sent their love, their prayers, their support to me and the kids. They were there for Ghon, and I know they will be there for us.

The kids had an amazing weekend. We did many other things besides cook chili; but that was a highlight for sure. Genevieve now has 2 new BFFs. Jonathan bonded more with other junior cooks. They are laying a foundation for the future of love and support, even if it is now just another chili cookoff.

Seriously, doesn't this look like a great family photo, with our friend (and Daddy shirt maker) Dave?

To my chili friends reading this, thank you for making WCCC 2016 so special, despite the huge void. I tried to visit many of you, yet, I know at times, I probably kept some distance. Jonathan has very few memories of his last WCCC, but I'm sure they will both remember this trip, this cookoff.

There are so many of you I could thank for your love and support that goes above and beyond - but I'm afraid I'll leave someone out. I appreciate you all. You know who you are, I know who you are, and God knows who you are. Thank you.

I love comments. Have something to say? Drop a message below!


  1. All well said.
    Now...Everybody smirk.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story. God bless you!

  3. I don't know you personally. nor did I know Ghon, but that was such a sweet, sad story. I feel so bad for you and your kids. I don't think I could be as strong and brave as you. Maybe we'll get to meet somewhere on the chili trail.