Sunday, July 08, 2001

So long, chili champ

Kirby 'Major' Dunaway, seven-time winner of Gold Star cook-offs, died suddenly

        Like no one else could, Kirby Dunaway changed my story before I wrote it. I was supposed to write about Mr. Dunaway, the Amelia man who won seven of the last 10 Gold Star ChiliFest cook-offs, the guy who was set to defend his title Saturday at the 2001 ChiliFest. That won't happen.

        Mr. Dunaway suffered a heart attack and died June 29, two days after I interviewed him. His death shocked everyone: He was young (40), apparently fit, healthy and in love with life.

        The night I came to his house for the interview, he couldn't wait for me to ring the doorbell. He met me in the driveway and hustled me to his basement bar where he had his memorabilia displayed — neon beer signs, one of the “Big Pig Gig” pigs, footballs, baseballs, five seats from Cinergy Field — and virtually every major sports star autograph, from Ali to Tiger Woods.

        Mr. Dunaway loved to collect things and he loved to talk about them, but he wasn't into memorabilia for the money.

        “I don't sell anything,” he said. “Everything I own will go to my kids.”

The name says it all

        He stood behind the bar, nervously shuffling while he talked, his sandy hair nearly brushing the basement ceiling. Years ago, while working as a radio disc jockey, his stature (6-foot-4) and personality earned him the nickname “Major.”

        “Some people would ask me if "Major' was like "corporal' or "lieutenant' or something,” said Mr. Dunaway, who owned an entertainment company called Major Productions. “I'd say no, it's like major instead of minor. You know, big as in not little. Loud as in not quiet.”

        Mr. Dunaway was comfortable with who he was.

Knew he could do better

        Finally, he settled to talk about chili. He went to his first chilli cook-off in 1988 with a friend. His buddy finished in the top 10, so naturally Mr. Dunaway figured he could do better.

        And this is the part some serious chili cooks might not appreciate: From the beginning, Mr. Dunaway never claimed to be a good cook and he rarely ate chili — even his own.

        “I'm not a cook,” he said with a grin. “I'm just really competitive.”

        That first year, Mr. Dunaway put four pots on a stove with four small chalkboards nearby. Using a basic recipe, he started tinkering — making notes on the chalkboards — until he came up with a chili he liked. The first time he entered the cook-off he placed third. The next year — in 1990 — he won.

        Another year, organizers changed the rules, requiring cooks to use only ground turkey in their chili. Mr. Dunaway didn't know it until he arrived that morning. He still won.

        This year, Mr. Dunaway planned to take his 4-year-old son, the adorable white-haired, blue-eyed, Zak, with him to Yeatman's Cove for the competition. And for the first time, Mr. Dunaway was changing the name of “Major's Chili.”

        “What are we going to call it?” he asked.

        “Zak and Daddy's Chili,' his son shouted.

        They gleefully slapped hands like jocks.

Taking his secrets with him

        ; When the time came for me to taste the famous chili, Mr. Dunaway asked if I wanted shredded cheese or crackers. This wasn't Cincinnati-style chili, he warned. This was hearty Southwestern-style.

  What: Gold Star ChiliFest — chili cook-offs, food and entertainment.
  When: 5:30-11 p.m. Friday; noon-11 p.m. Saturday and noon-9 p.m. Sunday.
  Where: Yeatman's Cove, downtown.
  Information: 579-3191;
        I ordered only straight chili, the way it should be consumed. He bounded upstairs to warm a bowl in the microwave.

        “Now tell me what you really think,” he said, handing it to me. “Be honest.”

        The chili was good. Very good. Dark and beanless, it was light on the cumin with a spicy heat that lingered at the back of my mouth. And it was extremely meaty. I couldn't slurp Mr. Dunaway's chili, I chewed it.

        His recipe called for three kinds of meat (I guessed beef, pork and turkey), four kinds of peppers (including a handful of crushed black peppercorns) and bay leaves — but no onions.

        That's all he would reveal about the chili. Although he tweaked it every year, Mr. Dunaway used the same recipe, the one he developed years ago with all the pots and chalkboards.

        “I have only two copies of this recipe, and my wife doesn't even know where they are,” he said.

Dream needed a partner

        His dream was to open a sports bar. He had the memorabilia and the best chili in town. All he needed was a partner.

        As he watched me scrape the bowl that night, I realized Mr. Dunaway was more proud of his chili trophies than all those autographed posters and game tickets framed on the wall. His success at the stove was sweet because he won with seemingly little effort — like the cocky kid who nonchalantly knocks down 25-foot jump shots.

        While many might cringe at the thought of being remembered as the man who dominated the Cincinnati chili cook-offs, Mr. Dunaway probably still is bragging about his legacy somewhere, sipping a cold one.

        As I left with a precious Tupperware chili sample, I asked if he felt extra pressure to win this year.

        “I can't really worry about it,” he said. “After winning seven times, I guess I'm due to lose.”

        But if he were alive, I'd put my money on Major Dunaway to win again Saturday.

        Mr. Dunaway is survived by his wife, Becky; son, Zak, and 21-year-old daughter, Amber. Memorials: Dunaway Children Education Fund at any Fifth Third Bank. The Gold Star ChiliFest will honor Mr. Dunaway with a ceremony 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the chili stage.



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