Hot chili, warm hearts

Hundreds of patrons will be lining up for samples of simmering hot chili Saturday afternoon as WMVY hosts the annual Big Chili Contest at the PA Club in Oak Bluffs. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Pat Waring - January 25, 2007

With football playoffs and Super Bowl fever in the air, January is always the right time for colorful partying. As holiday memories recede and mid-winter doldrums loom, many Islanders crave an energized - one might even say rowdy - gathering. A happy crowd, loud music, and cold beverages are just the remedies to fend off the seasonal blahs (and help you survive the fact that your favorite team lost). Add some tasty food and it's the ideal mixture.

This Saturday's Big Chili Contest at the Portuguese American (PA) Club in Oak Bluffs has all the ingredients of a perfect mid-winter bash - and more. Along with sampling hot, spicy chili cooked up by some two-dozen contestants and rocking to music by three bands, 1,000 or more patrons will warm their hearts as well as their bellies by donating to a good cause. As they do every year, all proceeds from sales of the $25 tickets will go to the Red Stocking Fund, which delivers gifts to needy Island children at Christmas time.

"I'm looking forward to it; it should be exciting," said Lorraine Clark who co-chairs Red Stocking with Kerry Alley, and has attended every chili contest since it began. "It's grown into a huge midwinter day with lots of chili and music and beer, and people have a great time."

Mariachi band
Festive South of the Border sounds of a visiting Mariachi band will provide authentic atmosphere.

Sponsored by WMVY, the contest is one of Red Stocking's biggest sources of income, topped only by funds raised by the Martha's Vineyard Harley Riders. Last year's event brought approximately $17,000 to the organization, which does no fund-raising itself, but is supported by community groups and individuals. According to Ms. Clark, Red Stocking provided Christmas gifts and food for 273 youngsters in 2006. The group never turns a child away, and spends approximately $75,000 a year to ensure that no Island youngster goes without gifts at the holiday.

The 21st annual Big Chili Contest will be the same as ever in most ways, featuring great chili and upbeat music, wall-to-wall revelers and good times for all. Along with plenty of food and drink, hundreds of partygoers will get to sample sounds by a Mariachi band, Entrain, and Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish.

After two rousing decades at the Atlantic Connection (AC) on Circuit Ave. in Oak Bluffs, this year's spicy extravaganza takes place at the PA Club on Vineyard Ave. Organizers had to find a new venue when the AC, a popular nightclub, closed after last year's contest to become a family game room.

A total of 23 creative chili chefs will descend on the club, each with five gallons of their best concoction. And as they dish up samples to the hungry crowd, every contestant will be hoping theirs will be proclaimed the best chili in the land - or at least on Martha's Vineyard on Jan. 27. There will be trophies for the top crowd-pleasing chili in both amateur and professional categories and light-hearted prizes for winners in specific categories chosen by WMVY, including hottest, best dressed, best presented, and farthest traveled chili. Slightly more than half the contestants are amateur chefs and about 65 percent will come from off-Island. The contest attracts crowds of off-Island visitors as well.

"Remember, for people off-Island this is exotic to come to, even it is January," laughed WMVY general manager Greg Orcutt.

Chili contest
Presentation makes even the best chili tastier; these contestants added visual spice to their entry a few years ago.

Win-win situation

"Red Stocking is the greatest cause on Martha's Vineyard and the PA Club's mission is to raise money to help the community and people in need, so it's a win-win situation," said Tricia Bergeron, president of the Holy Ghost Association.

"I don't think there's a better cause anywhere than helping kids. I'm very proud to be part of it, and it's a great opportunity for our club."

According to Dave Alton, PA Club Manager, when Michael Santoro, former manager at the Atlantic Connection, approached him about hosting the contest the idea sounded appealing. Although club officials knew there would be some challenges in holding such a big event, the benefits looked even brighter, and the board of directors voted to host the event.

"The Red Stocking will make a bundle and the PA Club will get a share for their many benefits too," said Mr. Alton. He explained that while the Red Stocking Fund will receive all ticket revenues, the club will reap the net income from bar and kitchen sales.

Although the PA Club holds countless parties and benefit events year-round, including the traditional Feast of the Holy Ghost every summer, the chili contest brings an array of new logistical demands. Both Ms. Bergeron and Mr. Alton said that despite the challenges they are confident that the event will function smoothly.

A spacious 40- by 120-foot tent will be the center of the festivities, with a Mariachi band playing to add to the South of the Border atmosphere. Several porta-potties will be set up outside the tent with the club's indoor facilities available as well.

Along with paid security staff, 10 club volunteers will keep a close eye to make sure that the event is harmonious and that rowdy behavior or over-indulgence will not cause problems. "If someone has one too many they're not driving out of here," Mr. Alton pledged. Buses will carry off-Island revelers to and from the SSA terminal and taxis will be readily available.

Club members and staff are pitching in, with all eight bartenders working for free that day and other volunteers helping out in the kitchen and behind the scenes. Along with being grateful for help from club volunteers, Mr. Alton expressed his appreciation for the assistance and consultation offered by Mr. Santoro and Mike Delis, an Edgartown police officer who was once assistant manager at the AC, both of whom were closely involved with the contest for years. The two men have shared invaluable information and expertise, he said, and Mr. Delis will be helping to provide security for the big event.

The chili crowd that for years has jammed the Atlantic Connection and Seasons Restaurant next door should have a little more elbow room at the new site. The huge buffet will be set up in the soup room and in the giant tent adjacent to the building. Chili lovers will enter through the old bar then move to the contest area. That bar will be opened for business and the club kitchen will also function with a limited menu for those who want a change of culinary pace. Johnny Hoy and his band will perform in the new bar to end the afternoon.

Behind the scenes

WMVY has worked behind the scenes all year to make sure the contest is a success, hiring buses, lining up contestants, getting tickets printed, and promoting the event - all free of charge. Of course there is always a flurry of last-minute details to tend to, according to Mr. Orcutt. "Other than that it's easy," he said.

The radio station has been central to the contest since its inception. It was Ken Goldberg, then a WMVY staffer, and "Trader" Fred Mascolo who originated the contest idea in 1986. The rest is chili history.

Along with paying a $25 entry fee, Mr. Orcutt emphasized that contestants must meet stringent Oak Bluffs Board of Health requirements to make sure their product is safe and he praised the town health officials for their help. "The chili may give people heartburn, but it will not make them sick," he quipped.

Mr. Orcutt predicted that thanks to the more spacious location, which may accommodate more guests, the event will raise more funds than ever for Red Stocking. Ticket prices were upped from $20 to $25 this year, "and people didn't even blink," he added. He said that with the cost of the gifts purchased by Red Stocking increasing each year it is important for the contest to bring in as much money as possible.

Mr. Orcutt praised the Atlantic Connection for providing an excellent venue and wonderful support for 20 years. But he is delighted to see the event take place at the PA Club. "I think it's a great location," he said. "This is a community event and the PA Club is all about community."

"It's a day when the Island looks good," Mr. Orcutt said. "A day when you're helping people that really need the help."

21st annual WMVY Big Chili Contest, Saturday, Jan. 27, 11 am to 3:30 pm, Portuguese American Club, Vineyard Avenue, Oak Bluffs. Limited number of tickets available at the door, $25. Must be 21 years or older. 508-693-5000. For information, visit or call 508-693-5000.