Good times, with a side of corn bread
I'd heard stories about the Big Chili Contest for many years before I dared take part. That was two years ago, when my best friend Kate Athearn stirred up a batch of vegetarian chili for the event, and begged me to help her ladle it out to the public. I did little but stir in some spices, but took pride when we collected our salad spinner - the prize for best vegetarian chili.
Photos by Danielle Zerbonne
The chili fever returned this year when, in an effort to stave off madness from an especially frigid winter, I decided to sign up for the 23rd Annual Big Chili Contest, held in an enormous tent at the Portuguese American Club in Oak Bluffs.
When it comes to cooking side by side with someone, compatibility in the kitchen counts for a lot, not to mention conceptualizing and executing the display, but Kate and I have known each other for over 15 years, so I felt confident any chili-related disagreements could be overcome.
There are several factors to consider when planning for a chili challenge. Each decision can make or break one's chances of being contenders. The display needs to be memorable, and the name of the booth catchy - something that people can remember and might influence votes. Kate's husband had cooked up "Hillbilly Chili" for the contest, so we took it one step cuter: "Two Fillies Chili."
Then we had to move on to weightier matters: beans and meat; corn or no corn. The great thing about chili is that it's wonderfully forgiving. Chop up veggies and meat, open a few bean cans, throw it all into a big pot with a little cumin and a jalapeno or two, and olé - chili. We chose a venison and pork base, and sautéed our veggies with a fat slab of bacon for extra porcine goodness. It was a sure thing.
Our checklist before setting out for the P.A. Club was a strange one: Duct tape, sour cream, sterno, scallions. Check. After a rush of last-minute flavor and spice adjustments, we lugged pots, heavy with hot chili, into the P.A. Club, which was already swarming with eager chili fest revelers. Streamers and large inflatable beer bottles hung from the ceiling, and by 10:30 am the alcohol was flowing.
Kate and I were in a mad scramble, struggling to set up our display that still required such finishing touches as having to cut animal shapes out of cardboard and display them. (Whose idea was this, anyway?)
Like a couple of madwomen, Kate stirred and I chopped. By 11 am, the masses filed in, clutching beers and demanding chili.
Rushed and slightly flustered, we were getting kind of sick of chili by the time we finished setting up, but after a little while a noticeable sense of serenity began to overtake me.
We were set up next to Sharky's Cantina, and for much of the day someone in a large shark costume strutted and danced behind their table. Everyone was smiling, and suddenly, I noticed I was doing the same. I turned to Kate, who was dancing the Macarena next to me with a dripping chili spoon in one hand. The mariachi band was on stage and the music was throbbing through the speaker next to us. "Would you like sour cream on that?" she asked for about the 25th time, grinning.
The Big Chili Contest overflows with people from off-Island, which lends the event a refreshing feeling of novelty. In many ways, it's a surreal celebration, with people in chicken-shaped hats, brightly colored Sombreros and gigantic Afro wigs dancing to the mariachi beat that blasts through speakers loud enough to loosen fillings.
As a vendor, I begin to search for signs of approval once someone spooned our chili into their mouths. I found myself disappointed when someone swallowed silently and walked on without giving a smile and a nod. When someone said, "This is really good," our hopes soared, and we calculated our votes. Everyone seemed to be a chili expert. One fellow, after tasting several spoonfuls, spent several minutes hollering into my ear over the amplified sound of the mariachi band about how corn has no place in any respectable chili. Not long after a young woman enthusiastically praised our corn inclusion.
We had made about six gallons of chili, and within a few hours we were scraping the bottom of the pot. We hung our number on a sign and propped it up against our empty pot, and hoped for the best.
We didn't win. Not even for best display (all that glue and yarn for nothing). Kate and I watched the winners heft gigantic trophies into the air, and bow to the roaring crowd.
Next year, I think I'll skip the making chili. I'll just put on my shark costume and join the dancing crowd.
Danielle Zerbonne is on the ad sales staff of The Martha's Vineyard Times.