Diane Stopyra fills readers in on all they need to know ahead of this annual favorite
IT IS widely believed that, during his life, actor and world traveler Will Rogers judged a town based on the quality of its chili. If this is true, Will would have loved West Chester. On Sunday, October 9, Gay Street will close for the 9th Annual West Chester Chili Cook-off. Approximately 70 teams will compete for cash prizes, bragging rights and the chance to aid some of the county’s less fortunate citizens.
At the contest, which has been in the planning stages since the day after last year’s cook-off, a judging committee comprised of approximately 30 local celebrities will have the difficult task of picking, through a blind taste test, the “best darn chili in Chester County.” Up to $300 will be awarded to winners in each of five categories: business, non-profit, home-town cook, volunteer and restaurant. The last group includes such contenders as Ryan’s Pub, Iron Hill Brewery, Kildare’s, and Molly Maguires of Phoenixville.
Attendees of the event, expected to be upwards of 6,000, will also have a say. With the purchase of a $10 wristband, guests receive all the chili they can eat, along with the wooden nickels they’ll be tasked with awarding to their three favorite chili-makers. With more than 1,000 gallons of chili on the street, chili connoisseurs will have their work cut out for them. Joe Henry, who tried over 20 kinds of chili at last year’s cook-off, compares the contest to doing shots of alcohol. “After too many samples, you just can’t move.” But, according to Joe, it’s a feeling entirely worthwhile. “As you’re walking by all of the booths,” he said, “you smell this crockpot of chili that’s being churned up with these big wooden spoons, and nothing beats that smell. It smells like fall.”
The only downside, Joe says, is deciding on a favorite, because the chili dishes are often as diverse as the people making them. In the past, favorite recipes have included filet mignon, crab, lobster, chicken, even vegetarian and vegan-friendly ingredients. “It’s a tough job,” Joe said, “but someone has got to do it.” At the end of the day, whichever team has collected the most nickels will win the highly coveted People’s Choice Award, and the $300 prize that goes along with it.
Ted Hartz, a lifelong resident of West Chester and a firefighter in the Good Will Fire Company of Chester County, has entered this contest with members of his firehouse for five years running. Last year, with their Backdraft Chili recipe, his team took home the People’s Choice Award. Hartz is looking forward to defending his title this time around but, even more importantly, he is excited to have a good time. A mix of people from all over the Northeast come into town not just for the eats, but to be immersed in the energy of the event. “We don’t go into this intending to win every year,” Hartz said. “We go in intending to have a lot of fun.”
Hartz’s goal is not a difficult one. At the contest there is plenty to enjoy beyond the chili. According to Katie Decker, cook-off marketing chair, youngsters will love the moon bounce, caricatures and music in the YMCA-sponsored Kid’s Korral. Adult attendees will have the opportunity to peruse vendors selling local crafts, jewelry and, of course, food. “I don’t even eat chili,” Decker said, “and I do quite alright during the day. If you leave hungry, that’s on you.” Chocolate-covered strawberries, cupcakes from Cupcakes Gourmet, kettle corn and fresh lemonade will be available for purchase.
Of course, the scenery isn’t bad, either. With each team competing for the title of best-decorated booth, you might stumble across a tropical-themed table complete with chili makers donning coconut bras and grass skirts. Last year, Santa prepared his “global warming chili,” while the Sugar Skulls cooked amongst retro, hot pink skeletons. Even Decker, who will compete with DNB First Bank, plans on dressing things up with a Gold Rush motif. The competition will be especially stiff this year, as Hartz’s crew intends to serve their chili through the window of a fire truck, complete with sirens and flashing lights.
With so much to smile at, it can be easy to forget about the ultimate goal of the cook-off. “While it’s a fun event,” Decker said, “it’s really about making a difference. Every wristband that’s purchased makes a difference in someone’s life. Your money could mean a coat for a child who didn’t have one before. This event helps people.” All proceeds will go towards the Rotary Club of West Chester, of which Decker is the Sergeant at Arms. The Rotary Club provides scholarships to local students, works closely with Habitat for Humanity, raises money to provide clothing for impoverished children, and gives nearly $20,000 worth of grant money to local non-profits every year. Recently the organization has worked internationally providing funds for Polio vaccinations, bringing water to a town in Kenya and helping to build a blood lab in Honduras. Perhaps Will Rogers said it best when he called chili a “bowl of blessedness.” At the West Chester Chili Cook-off, this is especially true.