Jerry Buma, the 2007 International Chili Society World’s Champion, lives in Northbridge, Massachusetts, in a house his grandfather built. Long before he dreamed of developing the recipe that would earn the award for best chili, his grandmother taught him to cook in that house.
“She was a great cook, a fantastic cook,” he says, sitting in his square, pin-neat kitchen, where white cabinets gleam and the bare hardwood floor shines like polished furniture.
“Chowders, stews … Oh, I used to follow her around, see what I could learn. I always loved to cook … My grandmother spent practically her whole life right here in this room, and so have I.”
Not quite. Jerry wasn’t much for school, so he joined the Marines, hoping to become a cook. “They said that if I wanted to cook, I had to sign up for four years,” he recalls. “So I did. But I never cooked a single meal.” Even so, he served in Vietnam, got out, returned to his family home, found work as a glazier and later as a house painter, got married, and raised his children. After they left home, his wife found, as he puts it, “greener pastures,” and Jerry was there alone. What to do?
“I heard about a chili competition. This was back in 1997,” he says. “I decided to give it a try. I won third place! I was hooked.” Now his bedroom is crowded with trophies and ribbons. The world-championship trophy is big enough to hold 10 gallons of chili, no problem. He’s the first cook ever to win from New England.
Jerry’s adventures in the world of chili have brought him more than he ever could have imagined: the pride of having beat out 154 of the best chili cooks from all over the world; then there was the $25,000, the purse for the world prize. “But it’s not the money,” he says. “It’s all the rest.” He has traveled widely with his like-minded friends, known as “chiliheads.” They do everything together. The only thing they don’t do is share recipes. Those are top secret. “I wouldn’t even tell my grandmother the spices I use,” he says, dead serious.
Jerry’s even brought tears to the eyes of former president and proud Texan George H. W. Bush. “He came to our Maine cook-off,” he remembers. “Barbara comes over to my booth. She shouts, ‘George! Over here! He’s got green chili!’ So he comes over, and I give him a tasting cup. I tell him, ‘Watch out, it’s hot!’ He says, ‘Yeah, I know,’ and he tosses it back … and, oh, he practically bends over double.”
As we talk in his kitchen in early fall ’08, Jerry’s reign is almost over. “It’s been like being Miss America for a year,” he says. “Oh, it’s been fun. I can’t believe all that’s happened to me because of chili.”
Tips to Make the Best Chili
Jerry says that cumin is the most important spice in chili. “Use only the freshest and the best,” he says. He recommends buying spices by mail order, from Penzeys (800-741-7787; penzeys.com) or Pendery’s (800-533-1870; penderys.com). For chili powder, he looks for California or New Mexico brands. He also advises that if your chili powder contains any of the spices listed in the recipe presented here, adjust accordingly.
Jerry’s favorite way to enjoy his chili is with “an abundant supply of saltines on the side–about half a rack per bowl–or over crunched-up corn chips. Rice is okay, but something about the crunchy aspect works well for me.” If you like cheese, he says, go with a mild yellow cheddar and a sprinkle of onion. Lastly, serve your chili just a little more than lukewarm. “If you serve it scalding hot,” he says, “the layered flavors are lost.”