Talking chili, sports with Iowa’s great radio voice Jim Zabel


A few days ago I had a delightful conversation with Jim Zabel. The subject was a coveted recipe for chili that Zabel, a self-proclaimed gourmet, calls the greatest ever. Zabel uses the word “greatest” more than he should, but I have to agree with him on the chili. He also had a Red Oak story that’s worth retelling.
Most who heard Zabel’s radio voice the past 60 years know him only for sports, and understandably so. He followed not long after Ronald Reagan as sport broadcaster at WHO, called some of the classic high school girls six-on-six basketball tournaments, did the Drake relays for decades, had a long-running TV bowling show, and was the play-by-play voice of the Iowa Hawkeyes for half a century. Now in his 80s, Zabel is still active and hosts a weekly talk show.
My purpose in interviewing him had to do with Eddie Podolak’s mother’s chili. Ed, as some will remember, played high school football in Atlantic, quarterbacking a team that went 20 straight games without a loss and showed no mercy on Red Oak. He later starred at the University of Iowa and with the Kansas City Chiefs. 
In 1982, after retiring from the Chiefs, Podolak joined Zabel in the broadcast booth. His parents came to games in their camper. 
Mrs. Podolak’s chili be-came a pre-game tradition. Hayden Fry, according to Zabel, once commented Mother Podolak’s was at least as good as the five-alarm Texas variety, then explained that in five-alarm chili the armadillo is added while still alive. 
Fast-forward to 1985. Iowa hosted Michigan in what Zabel calls one of the greatest games ever. When Iowa won on a last-second field goal, Zabel reported with his usual exuberance. One of the things he shouted into the microphone was Iowa couldn’t have won without Mother Podolak’s chili.   
The chili became so popular that in 1989, Hy-Vee purchased the recipe. For about two years Mother Podolak’s chili sold in the frozen food section of their grocery chain. Sales were discontinued and the recipe lost. 
But recently Betty Podolak Ward, Ed’s sister, found the handwritten recipe and we may, when the snow flies, share it. 
While Zabel and I talked mostly about food and recipes, he told a story involving a former Red Oak high school student he cannot forget.
A few decades ago (probably in the 1960s) WHO radio was broadcasting a high school basketball “game of the week.” Zabel did the play-by-play. 
On the evening in question the game was Villisca at Red Oak. Part of the arrangement was for the home team to provide someone to keep individual scoring totals. Zabel would call the game and at halftime take a break, turning the microphone over to the scorer who was to read field goals, free throws, and fouls accumulated by each player. The young man selected was given a scoresheet and listened as his duties were explained.    
The first half ended. Zabel handed the microphone to the scorer. The boy, obviously nervous, hesitated, swallowed hard, looked at the scoreboard and said Red Oak was ahead. He then bolted from the booth. 
Zabel remembers that embarrassing moment in Red Oak as clearly as the unforgettable 1968 girls championship game in a sold-out Vet’s Auditorium in Des Moines.   But that’s another story. 
Roy Marshall is a local historian and regular columnist for The Red Oak Express. He can be emailed at

The Red Oak Express

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