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Thursday, June 5, 2003 02:20 pm

Capital City Chilli

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Marianne Rogers, owner of Joe Rogers Chili parlor

It's a frigid January day, but inside Big Mike's Prize Winning Chili the air is warm and filled with the aroma of spices. Owner Mike Butchek is behind the stove, stirring a large pot of his secret recipe, taking an occasional break to sit down and chat with customers and enjoy a cigarette. The place isn't fancy-- just two tables, a few orange vinyl chairs near the window, and several stools at the counter facing the steaming grill. A shelf holds about 30 trophies from various chilli cook-offs and a photo of Butcheck with the late singer Tiny Tim, who sampled the chilli on a trip through town.

Obviously it's not the decor that draws customers to Mike's--it's the chilli. Mike's is just one of many local restaurants and chilli parlors that give Springfield the right to proclaim itself "Chilli Capital of the World," proving that horseshoes aren't the city's only claim to culinary fame.

People take their chilli very seriously here. A proclamation proclaiming Springfield "the Chilli Capital of the Civilized World" was passed by the Illinois legislature in 1993. It's backed up by the city's long chilli history. Springfieldians don't just like the spicy dish--they cook it, compete in cook-offs, and debate its spelling (most locals prefer two lls). They also consume plenty of it--some as often as five times a week, all year round. Most local versions are variations on an oily, rich, saucy concoction with plenty of finely ground hamburger and a blend of spices.

"It's comfort food," says Butchek. "It makes you think of Springfield. There are more and better chilli cooks here than anywhere."

At one time, there were more than a dozen chilli parlors and even more taverns and local cooks who served up the hot dish. Some particularly hungry patrons would even eat it out of tin pie plates in the alley behind Allen's Cigar Store, according to Christine R. Toney's book, The Magic of the Chilli, the Midwest Chilli History Cookbook. The Dew Chilli Parlor, Scully's Chilli Parlor, Coney Island, and Tubby's Quality Chilli are just a few of the early chilli pioneers mentioned by Toney. In the 1960s, there were three chilli canners in town, producing more than 4 million cans annually. In fact, the late Joe DeFrates of Springfield was the only winner of both national chilli championships. DeFrates, founder of Chilli Man Chilli, once said, "Good chilli has got to have good sauce. You can even pour it over cardboard and the cardboard will taste good."

Larry Eastep, who regularly competes in local cook-offs and is a member of the International Chili Society, says people's preferences are usually based on what they grew up with. Southwest chilli is filled with large, beefy chunks, and it has a lot of heat. In California, beans aren't normally used; tiny cubes of beef are the standard ingredient. "In Springfield, the bar chilli is made with a lot of suet, a lot of beans [usually made separately and mixed when served], and a mild spice mix with a lot of cumin," he says. "My secret in competition is to use the best spices possible to develop a good gravy, so that the first thing the judges get is a flavorful blend of spices. Only enough heat is used to let you know its chilli."

Butchek, 57, opened Big Mike's in 1990. He sells 10 to 13 gallons of chilli a week. He also sells spices, which come with a recipe, and bottles of his special sauce. After 28 years of working as a barber, a friend's success at local chilli cook-offs sparked his own interest. "I went from cutting their hair every month to feeding them every day," he says. Barbara Holzhauer, a state worker who frequents the diner about four times a week, says, "It's not real spicy, it has a good texture. Sometimes I like it as a midnight snack."

Mike's is a relative newcomer compared to Joe Rogers' Original Recipe Chili Parlor, also known as "The Den," on Ninth Street. Owner Marianne Rogers is still serving up the same recipe her father did when he opened the parlor at its first location on South Grand in 1945. "It was the original greasy spoon," she says. Many longtime customers still reminisce about the tiny restaurant with 11 stools. People stood in line behind each stool, waiting their turn. Today, at its current location, the 86-seat restaurant, which also serves tamales, chillicheese dogs, and cheeseburgers, is a smoke-free environment and sports a shiny red, white, and black decor with a linoleum floor, retro vinyl chairs, and employees dressed in matching shirts sporting the business logo.

Rogers' chilli can be ordered according to personal taste: with or without oil, with or without beans, and the degree of hotness, from mild to firebrand hot, which is how Rogers enjoys it. In fact, the walls are lined with the signatures and dates of people from across the country who endured the hottest option and lived to tell the tale.

Rogers, who's worked at the restaurant since she was 12 years old, says many customers visited the eatery when her parents owned it and now bring their own families. "It's a family-oriented thing," she says, as she greets familiar faces during a recent busy lunch hour. Like Butchek, she says many repeat customers come in three to five times a week year-round. And like all good chilli, her father's secret recipe is kept under lock and key at a local bank, waiting to be passed on to the next generation.

Big Mike's Prize Winning Chili is at Fourth and Washington, 544-1013; hours are Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Joe Rogers' Original Recipe Chili Parlor is at 820 S. Ninth, 522-3722; hours are Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

For more information on regional contests, check out the International Chili Society's Web site at www.chilicookoff.com. SPARC's 10th annual Sugar and Spice Nite takes place February 8 from 2 to 8 p.m. at Sacred Heart-Griffin West Campus, 1601 W. Washington. The fund-raising event features a chilli supper and silent auction.

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