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The Great Yuba Pass Chili Cook Off draws in big crowd after being postponed

Two men leaning against the bumper of a car and holding trophies for a chili cookoff.
Sophia Holm
KUNR Public Radio
Don Russell (left) and Andy White display their trophies from the Great Yuba Pass Chili Cook Off on March 9, 2024.

The Great Yuba Pass Chili Cook Off was postponed due to the blizzard this first weekend of March but ushered in big crowds on the day of the event with sunny weather and good chili.

The snowmobile ride to Yuba Pass is about an hour long on the groomed trail, faster if you cut through the woods. Reaching the event space, you are greeted by a colorful array of tents and can smell chili cooking despite the stench of gasoline from the snowmobiles. Most arrive at the Great Yuba Pass Chili Cook Off hungry, but they don’t stay that way for long.

The cookoff has been around for 30 years, and was created after a successful rib cookoff for the Sierra Timber Fest, said Andy White, a contestant and attendee of the first event. They knew what and where they wanted to host, but they didn’t know when.

“It was dead of winter and gosh darn Don Russell’s having a hard time selling newspapers. So we decided we’ll have it in the middle of winter. So he’ll have something to put in his newspaper,” he said.

Don Russell, the then-editor for the Mountain Messenger based in Downieville, Calif., was also present at this year’s chili cookoff and was given a special award for his chili.

The cookoff brought many people together during that first week of March 1994, but it also started a tradition of lawlessness at the cookoff, according to Dan Henson, another long-time competitor.

“I remember the very first year this guy Jansen showed up with a can of Dennison’s and won first place. But he was bribing everybody with whiskey, you know,” he said.

Jim Jansen, who is credited as the first winner of the competition, started the longstanding tradition of bribing judges for first place. Henson’s bribes tend to be more on the creative side.

“Normally, I bring fictitious gift certificates. And I’ll write them out for the bribe for the judges. I’ll put ‘free gas at White’s gas station.’ Andy White over here owns a gas station in Loyalton, but my disclaimer is a little tiny stamp I had made that says ‘fictitious,’ ” Henson said.

Most bribes come in the form of alcohol, according to cookoff judge Jenny Varn. In her three years of judging, she has received bourbon, cash, and promises that weren’t kept, among other bribes. This year yielded some other culinary items along with alcohol.

“I got some spam, cotton candy, and a jug of honey today so you never know what you’re gonna get,” she said.

Attendees want to get to the cookoff early, usually around 9 a.m. when the event starts, as chili can run out quickly and judges are given priority for tasting. This year, there was plenty of chili for everyone. Sixteen teams entered the competition, vying for first place, and just as many hoped to avoid the award for coming in last.

Every contestant’s chili has a different taste and influence, making competition fierce.

“The Yak chili was amazing. But then you can’t compare that with the Thai chili because it’s a whole different animal. I haven’t tasted anything bad. Everything’s been amazing,” said first-time attendee Heidi Blankenbiller.

While no chili at this year’s cookoff was bad, some contestants have made barely edible chili in previous years.

“We had one, I won't mention any names, one year that made chili that tasted like gasoline. I mean, it was bad,” said Terry LeBlanc, a Sierra County Supervisor and head judge for the cookoff.

However, even though competition was fierce this year, not everyone could win, and someone had to claim the title of loser. The trophy is fitting, called A** Last. Varn has claimed both first and last in her time as a contestant before she started judging.

“I've been coming to the chili cookoff since 2009. I have six first place wins, so I decided to judge and give everybody else a chance,” she said.

The winner isn’t always up to the six or seven judges who reconvene around noon to discuss the winning order.

“In the end, Terry’s the announcer; he decides who wins,” Varn said.

LeBlanc, who’s been involved in the event for 30 years, is also responsible for the trophies.

He made a special award for local Sheriff Michael Fisher, who didn’t get the memo that the event had been postponed due to blizzard conditions.

“Last weekend was the first weekend that we actually canceled it because of that blizzard, and I didn’t want anybody up here getting hurt. The only one that was up here was the sheriff and I made him a special trophy. But he was up here with a can of chili in his hand saying ‘there’s not much competition,’ ” LeBlanc said.

He was referring to the blizzard that hit the area in early March.

The sheriff’s trophy contains recognition for every awarded place possible in the competition, including last.

Despite the claims of Sheriff Fisher, the first prize went to Andy White, whose “Lizard Country” chili won over the hearts of judges. White’s first winning chili in 1996 was called “Head First.”

Sophia Holm (she/her) is a Lake Tahoe resident with a deep passion for nature and an even stronger love for storytelling. She strives to provide KUNR’s listening region with strong stories about climate news, issues, and solutions as the station’s Summer 2023 Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D., Project for Visualizing Science Intern.