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You can make it at home easy enough. But that’s not what this is about. It’s about finding a bowl of chili that will satisfy your spicy craving. Chili becomes the ultimate January comfort food because it is a stew, a slow-cooked thick soup that gets better with age. Chili is fun. It becomes the soup of the party and single-handedly dominates cook-off leagues. On the road, you might find chili to your liking or chili you’ve never met. The NewsTribune asked readers to share their choices for a good bowl in the Illinois Valley. At JJ’s Pub in Ottawa, Cook Brian O’Connell makes the soup. That includes the chili, available at JJ’s between Labor Day and Memorial Day. “I think what people like most about our chili is, it’s pretty basic,” O’Connell said. “I think part of the reason is the simplicity.” The original recipe started as ground beef, stewed tomatoes, tomato soup, chili hot beans and some chili powder and red pepper flakes.” O’Connell adds fresh green peppers and onions. “This was a recipe they were using here before I started here and it was something I learned,” O’Connell said. The chili’s spicy heat varies, depending on the degree of chili powder and red peppers, he said. Finding chili there is not difficult because it’s self-serve. You can add your own garnishes. “We have some people who choose to put on diced raw onions or sour cream,” O’Connell said. “My perfect bowl of chili would have sour cream, shredded cheddar and green onions.” Chili invites experimentation. The basic recipe of meat, tomatoes and chili peppers screams for additions. The most common is beans. Beyond that the ingredients can stack up without losing that red chili goodness. It’s no wonder that some of the best chili is not on a menu. Firehouses are known for their cooking. Firefighters have creative time waiting for the next call. It’s not hard finding recipes for firehouse chili. Mendota’s firehouse is home to firefighter Randy Simpson’s spicy kitchen skills. Simpson earned a reputation for his spicy food, including his chili. Fellow firefighter Lonny Eisenberg, who referred to Simpson as “hot lips,” said Simpson keeps spicy ingredients stocked in the firehouse refrigerator. He said Simpson’s chili is the best. “He just cooks a good spicy chili,” Eisenberg said. “I don’t know what he puts in it but it’s good. He won’t tell anybody.” Owner Sue McFadden makes the chili at Valley Bar and Grill in Spring Valley. Her daughter and manager, Mary Plochocki, said demand for the stew starts climbing when the mercury starts falling. “I guess it’s just the right blend of seasonings and hearty and it’s not too spicy,” Plochocki said. “It has nice-sized tomatoes.” Valley Bar and Grill’s chili is on the menu every day. And it has admirable provenance. It won the chili cook-off a few years ago at the Cedar Point Sportsman Club, Mary Plochocki said. A fast-food chain might seem out of place here but if it walks and talks like chili, that’s all that matters. Wendy’s in Peru gets a thumbs-up from Bev Sons of Oglesby. “The flavor is always consistent and good,” she said. As a loyal Oglesby resident, Sons also recommends The Root Beer Stand. “It’s all made from scratch,” she said. And the Sons’ household chili is a bell-ringer, too. Sons teams up with her husband, Carl, in the kitchen, she said. “My husband loves to cook and so we do it together,” she said “We use some Italian sausage and it adds a really good punch to it.” They use one-part sausage to two parts of ground beef. Cumin (from seeds of a plant in the parsley family) also is needed. “It’s almost like the common denominator in most chilis,” Sons said. They add onions, celery, green peppers, tomatoes and dark red kidney beans. “We top ours with shredded cheddar and a big bowl of oyster crackers,” Sons said. “Every time it turns out a little bit different but it’s always, always good. “It’s just a favorite winter dish. And of course, it always tastes better the next day.” Knowing chili requires a spelling lesson. “Chile” is a pepper and “chili” is the stew. “Chili con carne” is chile peppers with meat. There is nothing mild about chili. It originated centuries ago wherever hungry folk mixed meat with chile peppers. Where, exactly, is the subject of fiery debate, according to the International Chili Society (which not unexpectedly, has sponsorship from the National Onion Association). Some say the first bowl of chili happened in the early 19th century west of Laramie, Wyo. Texas, too, lays claim. But long before European invaders arrived, the people of Mexico and South America mixed meat, beans, peppers and herbs. Chile peppers show up in many ancient dishes from Spain, China, India, Indonesia, Italy, the Caribbean, France and the Arab states, according to the society. The chili that Americans know evolved in the West and Southwest United States, a product of cowboys, cattle drives, chuck wagons and an abundance of fresh meat. The original recipe contained chunks of beef, beef fat, onions, garlic, oregano and chile peppers.