It’s simple math. As Fuquay-Varina grows, so must the annual chili cook-off.
The event is held during the Day in Downtown street festival, which attracted 7,000 people last year, a third of the town’s population.
To keep up with the growth, this year’s cook-off on Saturday, Nov. 1, will double in size as 27 teams vie to win over the crowd’s tastebuds and claim the $500 prize.
That means more competition for regular chili cooks like Joy Medlin. Medlin’s team, Frightfully Good, started competing in 2008 and won the contest in 2010 and 2011. In the years they didn’t win, they placed in the top three, and their Halloween-themed decorations frequently win the trophy for best presentation.
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Medlin lives in the Harnett County part of Holly Springs. She’s a serious competitor. The festival is always on a Saturday, and she takes off work the Friday before to spend 10 hours cooking.
“They know,” she said of her supervisors and co-workers at Gregory Poole Equipment Company. “And they don’t mind, ‘cause they know I’ll be bringing them the leftovers.”
Phil Searcy, a fierce competitor of Medlin’s who has come in second the past three years, lives in Cary and grew up on a farm in the western part of the state. He learned to cook from helping his grandmother. His team is called Phil’s BackYard SmokeHouse Gang.
“Even though we live in the city, we are country comin’ to town when we go down to the cook-off,” Searcy said.
Searcy and Medlin have both found consistent success with their recipes. But they disagree on a fundamental ingredient – the chili meat.
Medlin uses only beef, browning it briefly before adding it to the pot. Searcy uses a blend of beef, pork and chicken that he smokes himself, an uncommon method he calls Smoky Hillbilly Chili.
Wary festivalgoers often ask if he uses possum, he said, to which he responds, “No, not in this. But we can make a special one if you want.”
Medlin says she actively avoids Searcy’s chili, not because of potential possum, but because her husband, Jeff, tasted it and liked it. Her competitive spirit simply won’t let her try it, for fear she’d want to copy the recipe.
Despite their different approaches, both Medlin and Searcy said victory in the chili cook-off – or in the Brunswick stew competition at the town’s Downtown Bounty Festival, where they also have found success – is only a secondary benefit.
They really just do it to have fun.
Medlin said she loves cooking all things Southern, and the chili cookoff gives her a good outlet to cook. Plus, she can spend time with her husband and 8-year-old daughter, Hayleigh, who is in charge of decorating their booth.
“It’s like a serenity to me, being in there” Medlin said. “I love to be in the kitchen.”
Every year, she sees people lose their cool at the competition. It’s just not worth it, she said, happy that other competitors such as Searcy will joke around, even during the heat of battle.
“We do talk a lot of junk to each other,” Medlin said. “But I will say, in the end, we are just as happy for anyone else to win as we are for ourselves.”