Everybody knows Aaron Cardwell’s chili. They just don’t know he made it.
He takes that as a compliment.
Aaron is the 66-year-old chili maker, bingo caller and commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4075 on Second Street. He’s also a huge high school basketball fan.
He says he likes to serve veterans and his community and he’s been doing it a long time.
As for sports, he wears to local games a specially made cap with the initials of Franklin County, Western Hills and Frankfort high schools.
His chili is donated and served at many athletic events.
“I recently made a pot for the Mid-South Conference Basketball Tournament at the Convention Center,” Aaron says. “I heard a guy say the only thing his wife liked about the tournament was the chili.
“He said the chili was all she talked about the whole way home.”
Aaron spends countless hours at the VFW and attends 40 to 60 high school basketball games a year with good friends Danny McClain and Harold Canon.
Aaron likes to tell the story about Danny being ejected from the Scott County High School gym at a Toyota Classic tournament one year for shouting at a referee.
“The ref was bald-headed and I had yelled earlier, ‘If you’d get that hair out of your eyes you could see,’” Aaron recalls. “A few minutes later, Danny said the same thing and the ref stopped the game and had the police escort him out.”
Friday morning at the VFW, Aaron said he was getting ready to go to the boys’ state tournament at Lexington’s Rupp Arena, “but I don’t like it there. I have to sit too far away from the floor and can’t holler at the referees.”
Aaron says he “used to be rowdy at games but I’ve really settled down. I holler at referees but I don’t mean anything by it. I’ve made friends with referees and coaches.
“I’ve gone to a lot of games and refs would say, ‘Don’t you ever stay at home?’ We used to drive to Mason County to watch Chris Lofton,” a former Mr. Basketball in Kentucky and standout at the University of Tennessee.
Aaron also says he likes to go to Lexington Catholic games “because they say a prayer at the beginning and end of every game. But I don’t care for their recruiting.”
As for the chili so popular, there are no secrets.
“I make a 10-gallon pot each time,” he says. “It has hamburger, onions, two big cans of tomatoes, beans and tomato juice, spaghetti, chili powder, salt and pepper.
“To me it tastes the same all the time. I don’t like macaroni in it. It’s not spicy. I don’t like it spicy. There’s hot sauce on the side if you want to add it.”
He says he’s never been in any chili cook-off contests, but he’s heard plenty of comments about his chili.
“It’s nice to get compliments,” he says. “I’ve never heard anybody say my chili was no good. I’ve heard people say they’ve tasted better.”
He says he probably makes 120 gallons a year.
It’s served regularly to the Frankfort Rotary Club and other civic groups, the Military Order of All World Wars, VFW, and for political fundraisers.
When he’s not making chili, he’s frequently helping prepare steaks, burgers, chilidogs, barbecue, turkey, chicken, roast beef, salads, baked potatoes, “or whatever we can to make people happy.
“Sometimes it’s a chore, but I enjoy cooking.”
Aaron also enjoys calling bingo at the VFW on Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons.
He’s been calling “on and off” since the 1980s.
“I’m not the best in the world,” he says. “I think I’m decent. I make mistakes. That’s natural. That’s why they invented the eraser on the end of the pencil.”
“They all fuss at me when they don’t win. But they never say thank you when they do. Overall, our bingo players are nice. We very seldom have any problems.”
He recalled a woman who was a frequent player and always wanted the same seat. Once when she came in it was taken. The person who was sitting there refused to get up, and it upset her, Aaron recalls.
“She sat somewhere else but that was the last time she came.”
Aaron said he tried to encourage her to come back, “but she never did.”
The Early Bird session – the first hour of bingo – is his favorite.
“It’s fast bingo, about 20 to 24 games in an hour. Regular bingo is slower and it sometimes drags. But even if it’s boring, I still enjoy it. I love conversation with the ladies and men who come to bingo.”
The most you can win in one game is $500.
“We can only give away $5,000 in a 5-hour period,” he says. “The economy hasn’t hurt bingo too much. We had a great month in February.”
Several years ago when a city ordinance cut out smoking in the clubhouse at public functions, “it hurt for a while. But we put up two carports at the back of the building and people could go out there and smoke.”
The VFW cooks about 100 burgers for bingo, and the price is $1.50.
“You can’t go anywhere in Frankfort and buy a dressed hamburger or cheeseburger for $1.50,” Aaron says. “And some people will still raise Cain about the price, or say you don’t put enough tomatoes or pickles on it.”
But the post commander and colon cancer survivor doesn’t take it personal.
He’s an Army Vietnam veteran who “didn’t see any fighting. We drove trucks and built roads and bridges.”
He’s also retired from the Kentucky National Guard and Texas Instruments in Versailles, where he worked as a shipping and receiving clerk for most of his 30-year career.
An early riser, Aaron is usually at the VFW by 6:30 a.m., and on bingo and other special event nights he’s typically there until after 10. He takes an afternoon break to pick up an 11-year-old grandson, Aaron Scott Boler, from school.
Post 4075 is the second largest VFW in the state with 1,077 members. Only Middletown is larger.
Many responsibilities come with being commander.
“I know I’m not going to make everybody happy, but I try my best to do what’s best for our VFW. I’m not down here for Aaron Cardwell. I’m down here for our veterans.”
Once a month he goes with a group of local VFW and Ladies Auxiliary members to VA Hospital in Lexington for bingo. He likes to take the veterans a pot of chili.
“A lot of them are homeless and in wheelchairs, and it’ll shock you how young some of them are, veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’ll play bingo for a quarter, 50 cents or $1 a game, and they really appreciate us being there.”
His wife, Donna, is a former state president of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary. Together, they have four children and seven grandchildren.
“Frankfort Faces” is a series that highlights people from within the Frankfort and Franklin County community. Each feature follows one of the city’s most unique personalities and includes a story, photos and video, which can be found by clicking the TV icon attached to the story online at state-journal.com.