Henry and Mary Stumpf have become regulars at the annual chili cook-off here because they love sampling the cornucopia of chili choices – including some off-the-beaten-path varieties.
“There’s no one recipe for chili,” said Henry Stumpf, 44, who manages an equipment rental operation. “How can you go wrong on a cool day having 20-some chilies?”
Indeed, the Stumpfs never even considered staying home Saturday morning even though the cold and intermittent rain offered less than ideal conditions.
In the tradition of past cook-offs that have served up rabbit chili and chocolate chili, Saturday’s edition included pumpkin chili and a triple-treat: alligator/crawfish/crabmeat chili.
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As befits the fastest-growing North Carolina town with a population of 5,000 or more, this year’s Downtown Chili Cook-off dramatically expanded the ranks of contestants vying for the $500 first prize.
The contest, which began in 2003, had been limited to 13 chili teams because of space constraints. But this year the cook-off tents were moved to a larger piece of downtown real estate, along Depot Street, which enabled double the number of contestants. A total of 27 teams signed up, but a few late drop-outs reduced the number of competitors on Saturday to 23.
The cook-off was held alongside the Day in Downtown Street Festival.
Some chili teams staffed spartan tents – little more than what they needed to keep the chili warm plus any toppings that they might offer and the occasional propane heater to ward off the damp cold. But others went all-out with themed presentations.
The Frightfully Good Chili team’s tent was populated with a skeleton, witches’ hats and gravestones aimed at the cook-off’s judges. One gravestone was inscribed: “R.I.P. Here Lies Fred. He Ate The Other Chili.”
The teams also went for catchy names in hopes of being remembered by the judges when they voted: Chili Chili Bang Bang. Bad To The Bean. The Wicked Pumpkin Chili. Backyard Bubba. Chili-Nators. (Red, white and blue stickers urging“Vote for Chili Bang Bang!” also were passed out.)
The judges were everyone who purchased a $6 ticket entitling them to sample all the chilies. Each ticket-holder also got to vote on the winning entry.
With great power, as they saying goes, comes great responsibility. The Stumpfs compared notes after tasting each variety.
“It’s your duty as a judge,” said Mary Stumpf, 40, a sales coordinator. “They spend a lot of time and money to win so we’re got to be fair.”
Some of the contestants served the judges chili with a side of marinated patter.
“It’s a pumkin-pie-themed chili,” Leslie Ziegler, 55, a payroll manager and first-time contestant from Durham, would tell the taste brigade as she ladled out her concoction. “It has cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg and pumpkin.”
Then she’d top each serving with “spicy sugar” – a combination of cinnamon, sugar, cayenne pepper and a garlic-herb blend.
Laura Poteat, 54, a freelance bookkeeper who lives in Fuquay-Varina, walked away impressed.
“That’s company food right there. I would serve it to company,” she said. “But I wouldn’t serve it as a main course. Too sweet. But definitely an appetizer. It would be fabulous – and it would be different.”
Not every contestant was as forthcoming about their ingredients as Ziegler.
Ask Kenneth Clark, 55, a carpet cleaner who lives in Raleigh – the creator of Backyard Bubba chili – about his recipe and he starts joking about amnesia.
Joy Medlin, 36, of Harnett County, a sales coordinator who took first-place honors in the 2010 and 2011 cook-offs, keeps her 27 ingredients tightly under wraps.
“She won’t even let her husband – which is me – know the recipe,” said Jeff Medlin. “She won’t even let me help cook to see what’s in it.”