Jerry Nelson: Finding fellowship at a fly-in-drive-in chili cook-off

Jerry Nelson
Jerry Nelson

Flying airplanes and eating chili might seem like an unlikely pairing. That is, until you consider that airplanes need gas and chili … well, you know.

I enjoy chili and flying, which is why I decided to attend the inaugural South Dakota State University Fly-In/Drive-in Chili Cook-off, held recently at the Brookings Regional Airport.

I strolled into the SDSU Main Hanger, where a small crowd of people were hanging (ha!) around. The wondrous aroma of chili permeated the air thanks to a row of crockpots full of chili situated on a long table.

A tall young lady seemed to be in charge of things, so I struck up a conversation with her. Ahna Duggan hails from Dubuque, Iowa and is majoring in Aviation Education at SDSU.

I asked Ahna why she chose to pursue a career in aviation.

“I was inspired by my mom, who is a firefighter,” she replied. “Plus, I like hands-on activities. Flying is sort of like driving, only in three dimensions. And it’s a lot more fun!”

Ahna Duggan comes from Dubuque, Iowa and is majoring in Aviation Education at South Dakota State University.

Ahna hopes to become an airline pilot. I have no doubt that she will achieve this goal; she exudes an aura of imperturbable competence, like a much younger version of Sully “Tom Hanks” Sullenberger.

There were nearly a dozen chilis available for sampling. None of them even got close to the Molten Lava level of heat. This wasn’t surprising. Many of us here in the Midwest believe that ketchup should be classified as a major source of spice.

As I noshed my way down the lineup of crockpots, I chatted with one of the entrants in the contest, a guy named Roger Svec.

“This is the healthiest chili here today,” Roger said as he ladled a helping into my bowl. Asked how he could make this claim, Roger replied, “The beef in it is 100% grassfed and contains no artificial hormones or antibiotics.”

I learned that Roger and his family have a herd of Belted Galloways, a breed of bovines that sport a color pattern that makes one think of an Oreo cookie. Observing that Roger was well past the age of the typical college student, I asked about his interest in aviation.

“I was fresh out of college when my brother asked me if I wanted to buy an airplane with him,” Roger said. “I told him that I didn’t even know how to fly, but he talked me into it. I soon fell in love with flying and have been fascinated by aviation ever since.”

Roger’s chili was excellent, although I was a bit disappointed when I didn’t detect any Oreo flavor.

One of the more interesting chilis I sampled wasn’t the hottest. This particular chili contained gentle nuances of smoke along with a blend of spices that seemed both familiar and exotic. I randomly sat at a table to wolf down a bowlful and struck up a conversation with my tablemates. Much to my delight, I happened to choose the same table as the chef who had crafted the chili.

Charlene Schmit and her husband, Rich, live at Howard, South Dakota. Charlene and Rich had learned about the chili cook-off via their niece, Lezlie Hauck, who is senior Aviation student at SDSU.   

As I savored the sumptuous stew, I asked Charlene about its spice profile. She rattled off nearly a dozen ingredients. The mention of oregano solved the mystery regarding some of her chili’s more recognizable flavors.

“I also include a dash of a Korean spice mix that’s used in kimchi,” she said.

Aha! That explains why I couldn’t place the taste of her chili! I have never been to Korea, nor have I had the opportunity to try kimchi. But where did that smokiness come from?

“I smoked the hamburger before we put it into the chili,” Rich said. “I crumbled the burger onto a sheet of aluminum foil, punched some holes in the foil and put it in the smoker.”

This struck me as pure genius, a trick that I will steal the next time I make chili. But the discussion about flavorsome food didn’t end there.

Charlene told me that she had coped with the pandemic by making sourdough bread and detailed how she created her own starter from scratch. Rich talked about some of the things he liked to smoke, briskets and standing rib roasts.

“You should have seen the Japanese soufflé pancakes that Charlene made,” Rich grinned. “They were so fluffy that they almost floated off the plate!” My overworked salivary glands jumped into overdrive.

The chili cook-off left me filled with fellowship and (literally) full of beans.

Now come over here and pull my finger.

If you'd like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at and at booksellers everywhere.