A hot time at the Big Chili Contest
The aroma of chili wafted down the street. Cars were parked bumper to bumper down Vineyard Avenue outside the Portuguese-American (PA) Club in Oak Bluffs. Entrain's popular world beat music welcomed the crowd. In the month of January this type of crowd could only mean one thing: the Big Chili Contest. Sponsored by WMVY Radio, Saturday's much-anticipated 22nd annual edition of the event was a fundraiser for the Red Stocking Fund.
Once inside the doors, the scene looked like a festive Mardi Gras party, with everyone holding drinks and wearing colorful beads around their necks and temporary chili-pepper tattoos on their arms, faces, and chests. The pervasive aroma of chili hung heavily in the air. Dozens of cooks, both amateur and professional, ladled their creations from big pots into little plastic cups for the tasting. People were weaving in and out of the crowd of 1,300, up from 1,100 last year, taking swigs from their drinks while making their way from table to table tasting as many chili samples as possible.
Mike Santoro, the general manager of Seasons Eatery and Pub and longtime chili contest coordinator, rented the enormous white tent, and there was plenty of chili for everyone under it. Mr. Santoro, along with WMVY Radio station manager Greg Orcut, dedicate hours of hard work to make the chili fest happen.
At one end of the tent, Entrain's beat had people dancing. Friendly WMVY staffers sold tee-shirts, handed out bumper stickers, and greeted the crowd.
WMVY program director PJ Finn said it's fun to create an event where people can have a chance to let off some steam. "It's good for Island businesses during the darkest month [of the Vineyard season]," he said, standing amid the crowd near the WMVY table. His personal favorite part of the chili contest is the performance by Mariachi Chapala, a mariachi band from Boston. "They're the happiest guys," he said, smiling.
Mr. Finn's best memory of the contest is when he met multi-year tee-shirt contest winner and his future wife, Tabitha Agneta, in 2004. Even though she had won the tee-shirt contest many times before, Mr. Finn hadn't gotten the chance to meet her until 2004. And the Finn family got larger three months ago with the arrival of the couple's first child, Olivia.
Mr. Finn says the chili contest has grown every year since it started at the Atlantic Connection in 1986. And more numbers means more money to support the Red Stocking Fund in its mission to provide toys and winter essentials to the Island's children during the holidays. "This does very well for us," said longtime Red Stocking Fund volunteer Lorraine Clark, raising her voice to be heard over the crowd. All the money collected at the door goes to the charity, making it one of the biggest fundraisers for the Fund, along with the Harley Riders of Martha's Vineyard. "It's a fun afternoon. Everybody has a good time," Ms. Clark said, adding a heartfelt thank-you to the PA Club and everybody involved in the fundraiser.
As the chili ran out and after the taste testers were making their decisions (the crowd selects the winners by casting votes), votes were counted and it was almost time to hand out the awards. People looking for that last taste of chili were disappointed by signs taped over the once full chili pots saying the chili supply had run dry. Representatives from different chili contestants walked around holding their numbers and chili names above their heads hoping for some last-minute votes.
The biggest award for professional chili, and the biggest trophy topped with a donkey's backside, went to the Corner 5 Surf Shop owned by the Black Dog. The second place prize, as well as the award for best presentation, went to the Little Red Smokehouse in South Carver, and The West Falmouth Market came in third.
First place in the amateur division went to Bob Costello of Carver, followed by Brian Athearn of West Tisbury for his 100 percent organic chili, and Maura Long of North Falmouth was third. The most traveled chili award went to the Patriots' Girls Katy Babylon and Kristal Johnson who came from Rochester, N.H., after finding out about the contest just last week. The women barely had time to sign up before Monday's deadline. The award for best veggie chili went to the Leeside Restaurant in Woods Hole, a favorite spot for Islanders and visitors who are waiting for the next ferry. The "Is it really chili?" award went to the Lookout Tavern for their white bean and chicken chili. The hottest chili was an organic beef chili cooked by Steve Jordan of Edgartown.
So, with chefs and crowds alike in good spirits, and filled with chili, the 22nd Annual Chili Contest came to a close. The party, however, would last for the rest of the night with Johnny Hoy and Entrain there to entertain.
This year's Big Chili contest raised more than $16,000 for the Red Stocking Fund. The contest will be just a memory next December when the money is used for gifts for Island children. But you can be sure competitors are already thinking ahead to 2009.
Heather Curtis is a contributing writer to The Times.