Chili cooks kicked off the 14th annual Gingerbread House Chili Cook-Off Friday evening with the North of Waco (NOW) pod cook-off. As well as being the local pod's cook-off, the cooks were fine tuning their recipes for Saturday’s main Chili Appreciation Society International’s (CASI) awards and points competition.

“A new rule by CASI allows tonight’s winner of our local pods completion to compete in the grand finale completion in September is Terlingua,” said Mark Sanders, the Great Pepper, a CASI delegate, for the NOW pod.

Each pod is required by CASI to hold a local cook-off.

“We chose to blend ours with the CASI cook-off to get better participation and benefit for the Gingerbread House,” Sanders said.

When the votes were counted at the end of the evening, Jason Sendera from Penelope, Texas was named the high points winner. Along with a $75 prize, Sendera will be one of the NOW pod representatives at Terlingua.

Sendera started cooking last year at the insistence of his father-in-law, Joe Jaska. The Gingerbread Cook-Off was Sendera’s fifth competition to cook in, Friday night's competition was a record breaker for the NOW pod.

“We had 72 chili teams enter. This was a chili only,” Kay Lefler said.

Saturday’s competition saw many teams returning from as far away as Louisiana and many from the Ellis County area as well as many first timers.

The cook-off included a junior class for children ages 8 through 17. There was also a local competition for residents not competing in the CASI competition. The chili classes for CASI competition were beans and no beans.

By the end of the morning, there were 77 entries in the CASI competition, 10 local contestants, 22 bean competitors and eight juniors.

The entries were judged by local volunteers under the supervision of CASI judges. Each entry is taste tested and scored by the judging teams. The high scoring samples work down through multiple levels of scoring to name the top three of each class and the NOW pod CASI winner.

The top three winners in the adult classes receive a cash prize. In addition to receiving a cash prize, the first place winner in the chili (no beans) class received a Coleman camp stove with the 2015 Gingerbread design painted on it.

Among the returning cooks was Jason Goains from Oglesby, Texas. Goains is the reigning 2014 Terlingua Champion.

“I come out here for the fun and support the Gingerbread House. As a champion, I automatically get to return to Terlingua ever year to defend my title. As the champion, I’m asked to attend as many cook-offs as I can. This is one of the ones I really enjoy,” Goains said.

Another return competitor was Melissa Johnson. Johnson was known as the Runaway Bride to come cook in the contest three years ago. This year, she returned with her husband and family with her Runaway Chili recipe to compete amongst the more than 90 entries. Joining Johnson was her husband and son who is a junior competition.

First time competitor Aaron Cartwright from Irving set up his both to begin his competition entry. Cartwright, a law student at Texas A&M, came to enter his unique recipe at the insistence of his old classmate and Ellis County auditor, Mike Navarro.

“Next year I expect him to join me here,” Cartwright said.

The youngest cook to enter was Waco Johnson, son of Justin and Amber Johnson of Mertens, Texas. This is the third cook off for the younger Johnson.

The cook-off proceeds went to benefit the Gingerbread House in Waxahachie.

“We get a portion of then entry fees as well as proceeds for the silent auction, raffle, and the barn dance,” Gingerbread House executive director John Wyckoff said. “These cook-offs have been a huge benefit to the Gingerbread House as they have been our major fundraiser for the past several years. In addition to being a fundraiser, these cook-offs bring the community and friends together. This is a time when the whole community pulls together to help one another and the Gingerbread House.”

The cook-off was started 14 years ago from an idea proposed by Robin Fox and Dan Grannar. “I had just been on the board for three months when the idea was proposed to me. I felt I had to take it to the board with the suggestion to take this on before some other non-profit organization picked it up,” Wyckoff said.

The weekend competition continued with the naming of the winners late Saturday, after press time. The winners will be announced in Tuesday's edition.