Chili cooks come from far and wide to participate in Oregon Trail Days cook-off

Mark Whetham (left) and Robbie Dinkin of Kimball represented Bearded Bastard Barbecue and Irresponsible Chili at the Oregon Trail Days Chili Cookoff Saturday in Gering.

GERING — Participants and people wanting to sample good food came from far and wide to partake in the Oregon Trail Days Chili Cook-off Saturday in Gering.

Mike Horton, formerly of Iowa, but now living in Omaha, has participated in all 33 years of the event, referring to himself as a “charter member and last survivor” of the original contestants. He said it’s the people who keep him coming back each year.

“Friends I’ve made and brought into this over the years,” Horton, who calls his creation Smokey Top Chili, said. “I like to bring people out here and show off Scottsbluff and Gering and the area. ... It’s always fun to sit and reminisce, talk, catch up with the families, and exchange new lies about what we’ve learned about our successes and failures at making chili.”

Among those Horton has brought into the chili game is the Moorhead group, who call the cookoff their family reunion. Family members come from Montana, Omaha, Colorado and Kansas for the event. Two separate entries in the cook-off come from the Moorheads — Spice Boys Chili and Cuz We’re Relatively Hot.

“We came up to help out Mike (Horton) and got ourselves sucked into cooking and competing,” Jarvis Moorhead said.

Mark Whetham and Robbie Dunkin of Kimball are in their first year at the cook-off. The pair comprise Bearded Bastard Barbecue and Irresponsible Chili.

“Apparently barbecue wasn’t taking up enough of my time,” Whetham said, “so I’m doing chili now, too.”

Mark Brooks of Two Fog Chili said his team is in its seventh year. Brooks comes to the cook-off from Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, and said he does it because the effort benefits others through the CASI program.

“Bragging rights is all you get for cooking,” he said. “It’s really all about helping humankind.”

Horton said he likes to see parents who have been coming to the cook-off show up with their own kids .

“It’s nice to see parents bring their kids and say, ‘I liked his chili when I was your age,’” he said.

For James Fitzgerald of Henry, the reason he participates is simple.

“I love to cook chili,” he said. “And I love to eat it. Here I can learn from the masters.”

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