Father Forsythe: The time I almost won a chili cookoff [Recipe Included]

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Father Andrew Forsythe’s White Chicken Chili recipe was nearly a contest winner. File photo

I sure do love chili. 

The chili I grew up eating is not the chili I make now. My tastebuds emigrated from the Southern dish of mildly seasoned beans, tomatoes, and meat to a home more comfortable with Texas style, long about the time I met some Texans making it in seminary and concomitantly was introduced to that “chili” all you people in Ohio eat over your spaghetti. To their credit, I do like those Skyline nachos they only serve at Nationwide Arena but only when the Blue Jackets are losing to the Predators. Any other circumstances on the ice would cause heartburn. Nevertheless, keep that stuff off my s’ghetti, and I am not interested in all that cheese to cover up such a niche concoction. 

Speaking of novelty, I’m going to talk to you about my best chili recipe that only ever won second place. I am probably still a little sore about it as I continue bringing it up after all these years. 

I was originally a member of Knights of Columbus Father Ryan Council 610 at the Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Chattanooga. They had a chili competition and were asking for submissions for said competition. I obliged them with my White Chicken Chili, a personally developed recipe from the popular football party dish you belly up to on a Saturday night when the Vols are playing. 

I am telling you, this stuff is so good that a man said to me on the night of the competition, “You should can this and sell it!” He is right, this stuff is good, though chili canning I did not. 

I submitted my dish, and it was completely gobbled up. I took all the acclaim and thought I had it in the bag, only to find out I lost by four votes, two of which were caused by my brother because he was trying to play fair. What he did not understand then is that there is no playing fair in a K of C chili cook-off.  

Sure enough, I won second place. This thing was rigged. You could buy tickets with which to vote, and I was on a teacher’s salary at Notre Dame High School and naively walked into an environment where votes were bought. That guy’s chili was not even competition worthy, but his was real red/brown chili, and mine was a novelty. Taking risks are just that, taking risks, and authentic tradition will always hold its place at the table. 

The Knights of Columbus are a wonderful organization. Those men keep Churches running all over the world. Their prayers and hard work are the reason lights stay on, children go to Catholic school, people are fed, widows and orphans cared for, seminarians are financially supported, and priests lay down at night in peace. I am proud to be a Knight and proud that Blessed Father McGivney’s prayers brought a miracle here to Tennessee.  

Here at Sacred Heart Church in Lawrenceburg, we have a statue of him, blessed by Bishop J. Mark Spalding, in our grotto thanks to Council 2246’s generosity. Blessed Father McGivney, the Knights’ founder, was an exemplar of priestly charity and a priest’s priest. I hope he continues with his miracles, please God. 

But, (you knew there was a but), I cannot believe this chili did not win despite its popularity except that I remember something my boss Freddy Moore once told me when I worked as a cook at the cafeteria in Trevecca Nazarene University. He said, “Some cooks will say, ‘they loved it, they ate five pans of my famous dish’ but they did not go back to the dish room where the trays are turned in to see how much of it made it to the garbage can. If you want to know what people love, see what they reject after they try it.” 

Here is the lesson, then. It is important that we see the whole experience, the whole story, the effects of the thing. You can say your parish is full of people, you can say the collections are up, but what are the people actually doing with what is offered? What effect is it making? I realize popularity contests are dangerous because we cannot always trust what is most lauded, but we still have to realize such a perspective is a mitigating factor to how we approach this business of ministering and sharing with others.  

We can speak the truth in many valid ways, but if the pews are empty, perhaps there is an opportunity to see if we could be more wise in our approach. Am I just being lazy by regurgitating what is in the textbook? Is there a place for novelty, and am I aware that the next big thing will have to be another next big thing in just a few short weeks? 

So my approach to evangelization now uses something of a hybrid model. Yes, let the novel be present provided it is good, but make it clear that it is a means to the authentic, the real reason we are here, the Eucharist. We gather around the table at chili cook-offs because of the Eucharist. We serve the poor because Jesus Christ dwells among the poor. We gather at football games to grow in our love for our team, but it should ultimately be in love for each other because we are in love with Christ, striving for that true goal of heaven. The moment these endeavors are overcome by the novel to the exclusion of the authentic, they lose the prize. 

Father Andrew Forsythe is the pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, a heckuva cook, and a true Southern story-teller.

White Chicken Chili 

3 lbs. boneless skinless chicken breasts brined (look up a brine recipe on the internet, yes, you need to brine them)

1 yellow onion diced small

4 cloves minced garlic (none of that stuff in the jar, gross)

1 Lager Beer

4 cans of white beans with liquid (if you want to cook them instead of cans, be my guest)

2 qts. Half and Half (whole milk is OK in a pinch, but it won’t be as good)

Ground cumin to taste.

Green Tabasco Sauce

White pepper to taste

Salt to taste (only at the end!)

Shredded Monterrey Jack (buy the block, do not buy the pre-shredded stuff)

Sweat the onion on low heat until translucent with a little bit of oil and add a little salt. Once ready, add the garlic and increase the heat until you start to smell the garlic from a distance. 

Remove from cookware and add bite-size cubes of chicken that you seasoned with salt and white pepper to the pan on medium high heat until it has browned. It does not have to be cooked through because you are about to boil it. Do not crowd the pan or you will be steaming it instead of searing it. 

Once all the chicken is browned, remove it and deglaze the pan with most of a beer. (I say most because I know you took a swig when you opened it.) Add the beans with their liquid and the Half and Half. Put the chicken, onions, and garlic back in and bring it up to a low boil while stirring. Add enough cumin until it tastes like a chili dish. Add the shredded cheese a little handful at a time to make sure it melts. It will begin to thicken.  

When it gets to the consistency of watered down queso at a bad Mexican restaurant, it is the right thickness. Add enough white pepper to taste its presence after stirring, and finish it off with enough Jalapeno Tabasco for a tasteful amount of heat. Do not forget that cumin changes flavors as it cooks!

Serve it with real cornbread (you leave the sugar in the tea, and keep it out of my cornbread) and send in your 12-year-old retroactive vote to Council 610, and tell them I want my trophy and to send me one of those feathers they no longer use for my authentic hat. Go Vols!

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