With a sold-out venue and nearly 1,600 people set to descend on the Portuguese American Club in Oak Bluffs tomorrow, the Big Chili Contest 2010 is bigger than ever. And the event sponsored by Vineyard radio station WMVY is sure to produce more smiles than ever for all parties concerned, from the chili chompers to the chilly children who receive clothes that the Red Stocking Fund buys with the proceeds.
For 24 years the chili festival has provided Island inhabitants with something to do in the lonely winter. And the contest is no longer strictly an Islander event, with many people coming from Cape Cod and beyond to participate. Roughly 600 tickets were initially put on the market on the Vineyard, and an equal number went on sale on the Cape. And they didn’t last long.
“They’re all gone in two days,” said Red Stocking Fund chairman Kerry Alley. “We can only sell tickets at the door if we have excess and this year we’ll be lucky to have 25 tickets to sell at the door.”
Greg Orcutt, event organizer and general manager at WMVY, concurred. “Groups of people buy 10 or 20 [tickets] and get together — not a class reunion but a social event that they go to every year,” he said.
People make other kinds of connections too. “Some people have gotten married as a result of meeting at the event,” Mr. Orcutt said.
To serve the multitudes who attend the event, contestants are charged with making at least five gallons of chili, “so that everyone gets a taste,” says the application form on the WMVY Web site.
Veteran chili maker Steve Jordan agrees that an ample supply is key. “Mine seems to go first because it’s hot and everyone goes, ‘Oh my god! Have you tried the one over there? That’s the hot one over there!’ And he tells his friend and she tells her friend and bang! Mine is all gone.” Mr. Jordan will enter the contest in the amateur category. The other tier is professional, where chili chefs are every bit as engaged as the amateurs.
“We see a lot of our friends,” said Billy Hart, chef at the Black Dog and two-time winner for best chili in the contest. “Every year we try to be in the same place with the same people. It’s my seventh year doing it, so it’s kind of like a tradition now,” he added. “It’s a nice community story,” said Mr. Orcutt, who has been organizing the event for nine years. “The Holy Ghost Society offered us this space [the P.A. Club] and they have been terrific to us; their members volunteer, they work the day and they basically turn over their club for the day,” he said.
“It started off as a very quaint thing,” he continued. “And it has grown into this thing where it raises a substantial amount of money for the Red Stocking Fund.”
Mr. Alley agreed. “The chili contest ensures that we pay our bills from the end of last year,” he said. “It is also our seed money for the food distribution that we try to do at the end of the winter when people are really hurting to pay their oil bills, and it is seed money for starting up the next year.”
Last year the contest raised $20,000.
“This year we provided clothing for 376 kids,” said Mr. Alley, and for that “the chili festival plays a very significant role.”
The Big Chili Contest takes place at the P.A. Club in Oak Bluffs tomorrow beginning at 11 a.m. At press time the event was sold out; a very limited number of tickets may be available at the door.