Big Chili and a hot time on Martha’s Vineyard

All chili is not created equal: there are endless combinations. — Photo by Danielle Zerbonne

Check out the 27th annual Big Chili Contest on Saturday, Jan. 26, starting at 11 am at the Portuguese-American Club in Oak Bluffs. This event, hosted by WMVY radio, is reminiscent of an August evening on Circuit Avenue with flips flops replaced by Uggs, and sunglasses with hats. Patrons get in the spirit by donning faux mustaches, sombreros, and other southern paraphernalia while boogieing to Entrain, Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish, and the mariachi band Mexico Lindo.

The tent goes up midweek and transforms the parking lot of the P-A Club into a stage and dance floor with makeshift bars and tasting booths.

“The tickets are coming in buckets,” said Greg Orcutt, general manager of WMVY Radio. There will be upwards of 2,700 people attending and an estimated 32 competitors, the furthest traveling from Texas. The contest “brings the whole community together and shows a giving side of the Island,” said Mr. Orcutt. “It is held at the P-A Club, which is constantly ready to help out the Island, and benefits the Red Stocking Fund, which helps out people in the most need,” continued Mr. Orcutt.

The contest, which usually lures a large crowd from off-Island, is filled with revelry, libations, and plenty of chili. But under all of the hoopla is a competitive cooking contest where bragging rights are at stake. The past two years, The Little Red Smokehouse of Carver has come out on top in the professional category, with The Black Dog Restaurant chasing at their coattails.

In the amateur division, Brian Athearn and Steve Jordan are no strangers to the big white tent and often enter together. Mr. Athearn placed continuously from 2006 through 2009, and Mr. Jordan’s chili, which tends to tip the Scoville scale, is the reining champion for the hottest chili.

Each year Mr. Athearn begins his chili-making the day before, which helps develop the flavor for the next day. He uses mostly local ingredients, including venison and his own pork from Runamok Farm. “It’s all about tasting, tweaking, and panicking,” commented Mr. Athearn, who doesn’t have an exact recipe, but “keeps cooking until it tastes good.” A big selling point of his chili comes from a non-local ingredient. “My friend sends out Christmas presents packed with ancho chilies from Texas instead of packing peanuts,” explained Mr. Athearn.

When it comes to tasting, Bill Narkiewicz of WMVY radio is one of the most seasoned judges with 14 years under his belt.

“A secret I’ve learned is that lactic acid cuts the heat from the capsicum. A shot of milk allows you to keep tasting,” advised Mr. Narkiewicz. There have been some serious missteps along the way, including chilies tasting like bowls of salt or bottles of red hot sauce, but, “Every year gets consistently better. I can’t remember a bad chili the past couple of years,” he said. Along with the awards for first, second, and third place in professional and amateur categories are the superlative awards including Hottest Chili, Furthest Traveled, Veggie Chili, and Is It Really Chili? In the past, competitors have embraced the latter with surprising concoctions including chili flavored ice cream, chocolates, and brownies. This year, there is an opening for the hottest chili award as Steve Jordan, who has won for as long as anyone can remember, retired his award-winning chili last year.

Favorite libations include Coronas with lime, and margaritas. Veteran P-A Club bartender Erin Pye knows how to handle the crowds. “It’s not like any other day at the PA,” said Ms. Pye. “We look forward to it in January when nothing else is going on.”

Our neighbors from the Cape get an overall positive reception, creating business for Island restaurants, hotels, and cab companies in the dead of winter. It’s a rare occasion to walk into the bar at the P-A and not know everyone by name.

“Normally you know what people drink before they come in the door,” explained Ms. Pye. “These are not your regulars.” When asked who makes her favorite chili, Ms. Pye replied, “I’ve never actually been to the chili contest before; I just stay behind the bar.”

For last-minute tickets, visit

Make your own chili

Chili should be rich and somewhat spicy with a good balance of saltiness and sweetness. The flavors of this one-pot meal should puzzle your taste buds. The debate is out whether to include tomatoes and beans, but the possibilities are endless. Here are some guidelines to help you build your own chili:

Pick your proteins: Beef, turkey, pork, lamb, venison, chicken, crab, buffalo, wild boar, rabbit, elk (this can be almost anything).

Decide on a texture: Ground, cubed (pre-cooked), shredded, or pulled.

Brown your protein: Get a good flavor base and color by roasting, braising, smoking, or searing.

Add the base: Pick as many as you want: tomatoes, onions, garlic, bell pepper, tomatillos, fresh chilies (habaneros, jalapenos, serranos, poblano).

Adjust the seasoning: Try different combinations of herbs and spices: oregano, bay leaf, paprika, cayenne, salt and pepper. Toast then grind: cumin, coriander, cloves, star anise, cinnamon.

Add some heat with dried chilies: (don’t use too many, one can always make it hotter). For herbacious and fresh try Anaheim; pack some serious heat with pequin; add some smokiness with chipotles, or for a richness use ancho. Toast dried chiles to bring out the flavor, cook them down in stock and puree.

Bring in some depth: Coffee, chocolate, peanut butter, brown sugar, tomato paste, red wine, bourbon, and tequila can all add something special to your chili.

To bean or not to bean: Try black, kidney, pinto, cannelloni, or garbanzo beans.

Add liquid: Water, stock, or beer.

Garnish: Avocado, cheddar cheese, sour cream, lime, cilantro, scallions, hot sauce, crumbled Fritos, bacon, chorizo. Or serve with cornbread, tortilla chips, over a hot dog or French fries.