In the end, the sparkling eyes, the ear-to-ear grin framed by blonde hair and the pre-schooler’s cheery voice beckoning grownups to try her entry proved a winning combination.
And, oh, the chili wasn’t bad, either.
Gabi Gunter became the youngest champion in the history of the Big Red Chili Cook-Off on Thursday, when the 5-year-old won her division and then captured the overall showdown to walk away with the coveted Big Red Chili Bowl traveling trophy.
The annual chili competition sponsored by the Waurika Sorosis Club has produced past overall champions that spanned the generations, from teenagers to senior citizens. Ryan High student Brock Gandy had been the youngest previous winner in the even that coincides with the opening night of the Jefferson County Junior Livestock Show.
But at the 2014 contest in the Fairgrounds Building, Gunter became the youngest contestant to claim the Big Red Chili Bowl, using salesmanship and some help from her father to brew up a chili drew a large crowd.
It was the second year of a rules change that made judges out of those buying a ticket for the chili supper that accompanies the competition, and Gunter’s entry drew 43 votes in the Youth Division, over twice as many votes as any other entry in the three divisions.
Tara Gunter said her husband, Doug, had gotten an outline for a chili soup from a co-worker and Gabi’s dad went to the Internet to find the exact recipe.
“Doug put the meat in the pan and browned it for Gabi, and put out all the spices she needed,” Gabi’s mother explained.
“Then Gabi sat on a bar stool and did it all from there,” Doug Gunter noted.
What emerged was a one-two punch of Gabi attracting diners to her chili and the diners being delighted by the soup that they tasted.
Although she defeated Youth Division runner-up Turner Mora in the initial vote, Gabi couldn’t claim the Big Red Chili Bowl until her votes were compared to those of Joyce Gresham, winner of the Individual Division, and Business Division winner Howard Ranches.
In that match-up, Gunter had a 43-26 lead on Gresham.
In all, there were 15 entries in the competition, with nine being entered in the Business Division and four in the Individual Division.
“We had more entries and more people buying tickets for the chili supper than we did last year,” Sorosis Club member Melicia McFadden said.
Although Howard Ranch got third in the overall vote, having the winning chili in the Business Division was satisfying for chef Jim Howard.
Unveiling his own recipe as a first-time competitor in the Big Red Cook-Off, Howard had a big grin as he noted, “This was a grudge match between me and my brother-in-law, Jim Seay!”
These were the final placings for competitors in the 2014 Big Red Chili Cook-Off, held Thursday at the Fairgrounds Building at Jefferson County Fairgrounds:
Gabi Gunter, Youth Division
1. Gabi Gunter
2. Turner Mora
1. Joyce Gresham
2. Jerry Shelton
3. Jared Dyer
1. Howard Ranches
2. Lewis Diesel
3. Quik Mart
This is the list of overall champions who have won the Big Red Chili Bowl trophy since the competition began in 2000:
2014 — Gabi Gunter
2013 — Jerry Shelton
2012 — LaRonda Duncan
2011 — Waurika Public Library
2010 — Brock Gandy
2009 — Brock Gandy
2008 — Sheryl Rochelle
2007 — Country Cookin’
2006 — Country Cookin’
2005 — Rinda Griffin
2004 — Ramona Rich
2003 — Ramona Rich
2002 — Glynn Baker
2001 — Jerry Shelton
2000 — Jerry Shelton