Stereotype or not, the crew at Madison’s Fire Station 12 makes a mean pot of chili.

At the helm is firefighter Aaron Zamzow, whose flavorful yet lean turkey-based chili flies in the face of other local award-wining, meat-laden varieties.

But all have their redeeming qualities, and the impending Packer-less Super Bowl is the perfect opportunity to test drive a pot for yourself — be it chili made with course-ground beef, turkey or sausage; featuring smoky, hot or sweet spices; highlighting beans, hominy or pasta.

“Every pot is like an experiment, because it rarely ever turns out the same,” said Larry Patnoe, who lives outside of Janesville and has participated in Edgerton’s Chilimania all of its 23 years.

The key to good chili is “big flavor without big heat,” he said.

Zamzow’s chili, adjusted to meet his crew members’ tastes, is loaded with veggies, beans and thanks to a little hot sausage, usually fools the crew into a healthy meal.

“In a bite you’re going to get a little sausage and a lot of turkey and you think ‘Hey, it’s not so bad,’” Zamzow said.

Chris Wilbricht, of Belleville, and Mark Schwenn, of Fitchburg, offer the other extreme.

Their three-meat Italian-style chili won Monona’s Chili Cook-off last year and also brought the duo the Rookie of the Year award.

A 4- to 5-gallon batch uses about 13 pounds of meat, including grilled steak, which gives the chili a nice smoky flavor, Wilbricht said. “It’s kind of a sweet, smoky and hot (flavor) all kind of blended together,” he said. It’s spicy, but “the spice in our chili kind of comes later as you taste it.”

The Italian taste come from lots of basil, some oregano and different flavors of Italian sausage fried with onion, bacon and garlic.

When a spoon will stand on its own in the bowl, “you’ve got the right consistency in our opinion,” Wilbricht said.

Patnoe, a seasoned cook-off competitor who has won and placed in several contests, also serves as Chilimania’s referee.

“In competition, we have rules that indicate ingredients that can be in and what can’t, to make the playing field level,” Patnoe said.

For the Chili Appreciation Society International-sanctioned portion of the Chilimania cook-off, that means chili free of beans, pasta, hominy or rice. That way the judges can best taste just the chili.

“If you have a big kidney bean (in a spoonful), they really wouldn’t be getting a taste of the chili itself,” Patnoe said.

Keith Conroy, of Edgerton, competes in this category of Chilimania.

His batch uses three varieties of chili powder — ancho, chipotle and dark chili powders — that renders a chili that’s just a “touch sweet.”

His chili won in 2004 and Conroy made the trip to Terlingua, Texas, to compete on a national scale.

Participating in Chilimania is carrying on a family tradition.

“My father never missed a Chilimania up until the day he died,” Conroy said, adding his dad never competed, but always had a good time tasting.

Gordi Rusch, of Edgerton, makes his Chilimania “tailgate chili” using steak, burgers, brats and smoked sausage. He also uses some jalapeños, but makes sure it’s not so hot that you can’t enjoy a bowl.

“Because I cook (the meat) on a Weber grill, it cooks in the barbecue flavor,” he said.

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