By Kristen Miller
DASSEL, MN For the second year in a row, Merle Larson of Dassel took home the trophy for the best chili at the Meeker County DFL Chili Feed, which took place Oct. 9 at the Darwin Rod and Gun Club.
“There’s a little bit of pride there. I enjoy winning,” Larson said.
His chili isn’t one’s ordinary red chili with hamburger and kidney beans, but a pork and green chili with black beans. It also includes a secret ingredient, which Larson calls his “magic spice blend.”
For this year’s DFL chili cook-off, Larson competed against three other chili recipes, but last year, when he won, there was a total of 12 chili recipes.
That same day, Larson also competed in the Litchfield Jaycee’s Chili Cook-Off, where he also won first place for his chili.
Larson has participated in 10 contests throughout the years, winning first place in eight of them.
He jokes that the only reason he lost one year was due to a “fluke” because Congressman Collin Peterson was one of the judges.
“He thinks tomato soup is spicy,” Larson said, explaining that Peterson is Scandinavian and tends to like foods with little spice to them.
Now, instead of having judges, the Meeker County DFL Chili Cook-off is judged by those in attendance.
Larson entered his first chili contest in 2001 and has since entered in nine contest finishing no worst than in second place, he said.
In 2003, Larson came up with the current recipe he uses, which has been winning ever since.
The largest contest Larson entered was in Rochester last year at the DFL Senate District 29/30 Chili Cook-off, where his chili won first place among 25 entered in the contest.
He would like to enter into bigger cook-offs, “but I’m not going to drive to Texas,” Larson said.
The main ingredient in his chili is a Boston butt pork roast, which comes from the shoulder of a pig, Larson said.
He cuts it in bite-size cubes, leaving a fair amount of fat to help add flavor, and browns it in a skillet.
The secret, Larson says, is to cook the meat, sauce ingredients (which includes green salsa made from tomatillos), and spices separate from the beans.
He cooks the sauces covered to keep in the moisture along with the flavor. “But you don’t want it too thick,” Larson said.
In the end, the chili is not one’s typical chili. Larson’s chili recipe is light brown in color, he said.
Larson doesn’t give his recipe away. Only his wife, Nancy, and daughter Viky have the recipe to his award-winning chili.
Larson’s cooking experience goes back to his work with General Mills, where he worked for 28 years as a food scientist in research and development.
While there, Larson was instrumental in developing Hamburger Helper. He also coined the phrase “invisible fiber” by developing products with excellent sources of fiber that don’t compromise taste.
Larson also assisted with the Dassel-Cokato FFA’s food science program for six years, helping five teams go to nationals.
At home, Merle does most of the cooking, which Nancy gladly lets him do. “He likes cooking,” Nancy said. She is also a big fan of her husband’s chili.
“It’s delicious,” she said. “I like chili, but his is really the best I’ve ever had.”
They like to eat chili no matter what the temperature is outside, Merle said.
The couple of soon-to-be 50 years frequently vacation in Arizona, and say that only eating chili when it’s cold is a northern mentality. In the southwest, people eat chili year-round, Merle said.