by Kalie Ammons
With the temperature's high just hitting 54 degrees Saturday, the Wabash Cannonball Chili for Charity Cook-off was the perfect place to go warm up.
This is Wabash's 11th annual chili cook-off. With over 100 booths, the cook-off has raised approximately $60,000 in past years for charity. Bill Gerding and Steve Bowman are the co-founders of this successful event.
Wabash's chili cook-off proudly touts the title as the "largest chili cook-off east of the Mississippi River." Every year, thousands of visitors and chili connoisseurs come to sample over a hundred different chili soups. Some are known for their tasty flavors, some for their unique ingredients and some for their not-so-great attempts.
The hordes of people that swarmed the cook-off on Saturday were each given tickets after being stamped on the hand. The stamp let them try the chili, while the tickets gave them each a vote. Some opted to give all their tickets to the first booth, while others tasted and thought carefully before giving up a single ticket.
Each booth competed not only with their chili, but their attitudes and atmospheres to win over some tickets. Some would dance, sing, brag or even badger people into giving them their tickets. The Boilermakers chose to loudly claim their chili as the best, while the creators of the Amputee Chili used some curiosity and a little bit of fear to get people to drop their tickets.
Curiosity was a popular theme with many of the booths. Who could produce the most odd or capture pop-culture the best with their chili? This year the Pirates of the Cannonball returned with their very own Jack Sparrow making rounds.
Scooby Doo and the gang also made a visit with some chili that had a somewhat spooky-or maybe just strange-ingredient: kangaroo. ARC won the category of Most Unusual Ingredient with their kangaroo-meat chili.
Another chili that stuck out with a strange ingredient was the Pumpkin Chili. Many would approach the booth, look to their friends and convince one to try it before taking the chance themselves.
There was no way around the Duck Dynasty booths that were periodically mixed in. More beards than ever before seen in Wabash gathered to try the chili attached to the cultural phenomenon.
A chili even dared to take on the Breaking Bad fandom with "Broken Bad Chili." Surrounding the booth in yellow HAZMAT suits, people could cautiously taste this new chili.
Fitalicious returned this year and blasted loud rock from enormous speakers as they flexed their gargantuan muscles. If you dared, they might even let a passerby attempt to lift one of their giant foam weights. Jakae Francis' chili again won this year's Open Showmanship category with Fitalicious.
Taking a different approach, one booth boasted a Las Vegas theme and even put a woman on a pedestal in a cage. When approached, she would hand out beads.
Judges of the chili cook-off must follow strict rules that differ from the general public. The identity of the chili they taste is purely confidential. With the judges left in the dark on whose chili they might taste, they take just a spoonful and determine where it falls on a scale of 1-10. After each bite, the judges must cleanse their pallets with either a cracker or a sip of beer.
Oktogafest, rookies to the event, took this year’s first place prize. Wayne Denger, Jordan Tandy, Josh Petruniw, Patrick Sullivan and Chris Marts wore togas as they served their deep fried chili, a recipe created by Tandy and his wife Ashley.
Each taste of chili served to the public was in a two-ounce container. Most of these were about half-full, but all of that chili adds up. With 128 ounces in a gallon, sampling each of the 116 chili soups would get someone very close to that mark. Some would not have any problems going for seconds of their favorite chili.
As people wandered from booth to booth, determining whether their hatred of beans outweighs their curiosity to try all types of chili, they found they couldn't walk too far without finding someone they knew. Either they were running a booth, supporting friends or also just sampling chili on a cool day. The Wabash Chili for Charity Cook-off packed Paradise Spring Historical Park for four hours with bopping heads and crazy characters.
The attire varied at the cook-off. The majority of attendees chose to wear hooded sweatshirts and jeans, but some chose more colorful garb. There was at least one person sporting an all-red body suit that covered his face and all. Some wore T-shirts to support their chili, while others wore chili-colored T-shirts to support their laundry.
With all of these attendees, the charity raised a pretty penny to donate to the following organizations: 85 Hope, Best of the Best, FAME, Honeywell Center Educational, Outreach Program, Paradise Spring Historical Park, Special Olympics of Wabash County, The Access, The Wabash River Defenders, Wabash County Historical Museum and the Wabash County Transit.
The chili committee is already planning away for next year's chili cook-off. The chili cook-off is always held in the third week of October and brings tourists and chili connoisseurs from around the country to sample these recipes.
Next year will be the cook-off's twelfth year. If you weren't able to make it this year, clear your calendar for 2014. A good meal at low cost for a great cause will be waiting.