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Pepe’s Pod works to perfect recipes and help others

July 29, 2018

SCOTTSBLUFF – The heat is on when local chili cooks, sometimes called “chiliheads,” get out their pots to brew up a great batch. They have a greater mission: making a positive difference in people’s lives with every pot of chili.

Pepe’s Pod, a local non-profit group of hardcore chiliheads, was organized 35 years ago. Its members helped launch the first Oregon Trail Days Chili Cook-Off in 1986 and get it designated as the Nebraska State championship event by CASI, the Chili Appreciation Society International.

The top three winners at the Nebraska championship event qualify to compete in the CASI international championship, scheduled each November in Terlingua, Texas.

The recipe for CASI chili is simple: red chili sauce and meat – no beans, no fillers and no nonsense. The secret is in how cooks measure out the different spices.

“I’ve only qualified for Terlingua twice in my 18 years of cooking chili, so it’s not easy to do,” said Scott Harris, the “Grand Pepper” of Pepe’s Pod.

“Our local group is backed by CASI,” he said. “They do things like build schools and provide scholarships for kids to go to college. We cook chili and have fun raising money for charity.”

CASI’s November event, called the Terlingua International Chili Cook-Off, raises enough to completely fund the local school at Terlingua for the school year.

“Terlingua’s school only went up to middle school, so for kids to go on to high school, it was a three-hour commute each way,” Harris said. “Terlingua was experiencing an almost 100 percent dropout rate after middle school. With the addition of a high school, they now have an almost 100 percent graduation rate with CASI helping many of them with scholarship opportunities.”

That success has repeated itself as CASI has opened two more schools in areas where economic needs are great.

On the local level, Pepe’s Pod members have supported charities like United Way of Western Nebraska. They’re currently supporting the local animal food pantry Skipper’s Cupboard with donations from their chili cook-off events.

Members aren’t just active during Oregon Trail Days. They’ve joined the sheriff’s department for a chili cook-off to raise funds to purchase bulletproof vests for the women of the Sheriff’s Reserves because the state doesn’t provide equipment for reservists.

They’ve also been able to send 10 Scotts Bluff County students to college on CASI scholarships.

“The main goal of every CASI chili cook is to help with the charity,” Harris said. “Nobody’s expecting cash or anything other than bragging rights and a nice trophy. They’re happy to cook knowing they’re helping someone else.”

When he’s not at the stove, Harris operates his family owned business, Cleaning People Company. He and his wife, Linda, interact with lots of people on both the commercial and personal level as they support the community.

“Without the folks that are really proud of our Oregon Trail Days Chili Cook-Off, we wouldn’t be able to do half the things we do,” he said. “I have to give credit to the community for their support.”

Pepe’s Pod only has a few official members, but Harris is always recruiting to get new people involved. Membership is $10 a year. Five dollars goes to the CASI organization for scholarships and the other $5 helps the Pod with expenses for organizing cook-offs.

For more information on Pepe’s Pod, call Scott at 308-641-0427.

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