What is chili exactly? Big Chili Contest competitors elaborate

Chili comes in many flavors. This is Offshore Ale's version at a recent Chili Contest. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

What makes up a pot of chili is open to debate. According to merriam-webster.com, it is a thick sauce of meat and chilies (peppers). Beyond that, it’s up to the chef, and participants in the Vineyard’s annual Big Chili Contest benefit for the Red Stocking Fund have their own opinions.

Some argue that meat is essential, and that beans have no place in a true chili. Most cooks include tomatoes, but some shun them. There is the usual tomato-and-pepper red chili, white chili, chili verde, vegetarian chili, mild chili, and three-alarm knock-your-sinuses-out chili.

Chili as we know it had it origins amid mariachi bands in the “mercados” (Spanish for markets) of San Antonio, but in the past century it has spread far and wide. It became the official state dish of Texas in 1977 and is well-known throughout the country in some of its many guises.

Brian Athearn of West Tisbury and Steve Jordan of Edgartown will share a booth at this Saturday’s Chili Contest, as they have for the past decade. Mr. Jordan competes, and usually wins, in the hottest chili category, with spiciness fueled by peppers he grows himself. Mr. Athearn enjoys watching people as they try to eat Mr. Jordan’s “concoction of gastrointestinal distress,” but his own chili is milder.

“I don’t have a recipe,” Mr. Athearn said. “I start cooking the day before, and when I’m done, I’m done. We use venison, pork, and lamb, all the stuff that we raise on our farm. A friend of mine sends up presents from Texas, packed in chipotle peppers, which I use in the chili.” Once Mr. Athearn has his ingredients, he says that it’s a matter of time, care, and careful adjustments. “I cook chili the way I want to eat it,” he said.

Don Welty of Edgartown entered the Chili Contest for the first time last year, after many years of helping with security with the Martha’s Vineyard Harley Riders. He said that his chili pot was nearly licked dry by the end of the day.

“I did 11 gallons, this year I’m going to do 15,” Mr. Welty said. “I only had two ladle-fulls of chili left.”

Mr. Welty has his own opinion about what constitutes chili: “To me a chili has to have beans,” he said. “Red sauce, with beans. Not too hot, just a little heat in the back of your throat after each bite, but not so hot you can’t eat it.”

Mr. Welty participates because he likes to see the people. “It’s a lot of fun, you get to talk to a lot of people,” he said. “I wanted to compete, but I didn’t care how I placed – I wound up getting second place, but I wasn’t even in the tent when they announced the winners.”

Jack Lavalette, a pediatrician from Connecticut, has competed in the Chili Contest for the past 10 years with his Dr. Love’s concoction. but he plans to take this year off. “Kerry Alley, who runs the Red Stocking, is my father-in-law, and years ago he invited us down,” he said.

After a first year as an attendee, Dr. Lavalette and some friends decided to compete. “I felt like I had a pretty good recipe, and like we could hold our own with those guys,” he said. “I think a good chili has to be a meal in itself, a typical macho meal in one bowl.

“I think it has to be meaty – I mean there’s vegetarian chili and that’s vegetarian chili, but it has to be meaty. Personally, I think that beans are not chili. I think you’ve got to stick with the real stuff. It’s gotta have peppers, it’s gotta have some spice, and it’s gotta make you think of the Chili Contest. For me, if it’s too fancy, too creative, too high-brow, it’s not chili. It’s a fine meal, but it’s not chili.”

The quest for real chili has traveled far and wide since settlers on the American frontier carried bricks of dried meat, suet, salt, and chili peppers to boil up over their campfires. The participants in this weekend’s contest may explore some new flavors in chili, but they will not exhaust the possibilities, the endless variations that can come from hot peppers, meat, and maybe a few other ingredients.

Big Chili Contest

This Saturday, Jan. 28, professional and amateur chefs will present their best, and their hottest, in WMVY’s 26th annual Big Chili Contest, which is held at the Portuguese-American Club in Oak Bluffs.

Last year, the contest raised $35,000 for the Red Stocking Fund. There are separate categories for professional and amateur chefs, and special awards for the best veggie chili, the best presentation, the hottest chili, the “most traveled,” and in the “is it really chili?” category.

The event starts at 11:30 am. Prizes are awarded at 3 pm. Tickets ($30; limit of four tickets per person) are available at Shirley’s Hardware in Vineyard Haven and Trader Fred’s in Edgartown. A limited amount of tickets will be sold at the door the day of the event.