Is there anything more satisfying for soul and stomach than a feel-good story involving chili?
Garrett Doucette is a second-generation volunteer firefighter in Upsala, Minnesota, a town of about 400. Growing up, he spent a lot of time with his dad, washing and waxing trucks and participating in parades.
He's also a third-generation turkey farmer with a mean homemade chili recipe, one he's been perfecting with his family's birds for a decade. It's earned him a trio of wins in his community's annual chili cook-off, even when he's been pitted against chefs and restaurateurs.
So when he entered Hormel's "America's Best Firehouse Chili Contest" he must've been feeling pretty confident, right?
"Absolutely not," Doucette laughs. "On a local level, I was fine."
But then a fellow volunteer shared the Hormel competition with him, asking if it was something he would enter on behalf of the department. The chili maker is honoring firefighters ("and highlight[ing] their red-hot cooking talents") with their second-annual search for America’s best firehouse chili recipe. They're also donating $20,000 to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. "I thought... well, what's the worst that could happen?"
Well, the worst that could happen is that his recipe wouldn't be selected. But it was! Doucette found out earlier this month that his Creamy Turkey Chili is one of this year's five finalists. He'll fly to New York next month to compete in a live cook-off against firefighters from around the country.
Doucette explains that food is a crucial unifier in firehouses—especially the big ones, with full-time firefighters who make meals and eat and clean together.
"And it brings us comfort, too—in a bad situation, you reach out to the things you remember. These recipes are carrying that on for a lot of people."
That his is a white chili makes it something of a dark horse, but if he wins, Doucette will take home a $10,000 prize for his department. It's money they could really use: The volunteers get some grants from the government, but they rely heavily on fundraisers. They've needed new turnout gear for some time—those protective suits are only good for 10 years, and Upsala's are a bit past their prime.
"If we're lucky enough to be chosen, at $2,000 a set, we can at least get five guys outfitted and safe," he says.
Upsala's department is just 20 members strong; its volunteers have full-time jobs. Still: "The page goes out, and we answer the call just like the guys in the big cities," Doucette says. "That idea of neighbors coming together, helping out—like growing up on a farm, you're always helping neighbors when they need it. Regardless of if you're in a big department like Minneapolis or St. Paul or a town of 400, we all work together."
Something else that's true in both big cities and small towns? We all love a good bowl of homemade chili.