It was a nasty Ithaca day: slush on the sidewalk soaked my jeans, snow blew in my face and wind sent chills through my ski jacket. If it had been a weekday, I would have skipped class and stayed in my cozy bed. But it was a Saturday, and I was hell-bent on getting to the Commons. With two friends in tow, I sloshed down Buffalo Street in search of the fabled mechanical bull. What I discovered was much more: a chili eating extravaganza. Tasting was not confined to a select set of judges – it was available to the entire Ithaca community. For a few dollars, you get a punch card and access to the largest variety of chili in one area you could imagine. Everyone in Ithaca was in on the action. With people buzzing around the Commons in masses reserved only for summer days, even restaurants that don’t serve chili boasted chili stands.
Three years have passed since my inaugural visit to the Ithaca Chili Festival, and the 2006 cook-off is scheduled to happen February 18th. Did you know that the term “Chili” actually refers to the pepper used to spice the dish? Below is a “chili glossary” to help you navigate the crowds.
Capsaicin: Refers to the chemical that makes chiles hot, ranging from Red Savina Habanero (unbearable) to bell pepper (mild). Because different chiles contain different levels of capsaicin, beware of substituting chiles in recipes-don’t add more than a pinch of Habanero to your chili unless you want to spend the next week re-growing taste buds. And don’t be fooled by popular belief: the Thai chile actually contains a higher level of capsaicin than the Habanero.
Chili Con Carne: The tomato based bowl of meat and beans that is well-known around the country. In spite of legend, folklore, and name, chili con carne was not brought to America from Mexico. It was founded in Texas and gained popularity first in San Antonio. It would figure that in 1977, Texas laid claim to the dish and named chili the official “state food.”
Chili Plus: Add chunks of sweet potato, mango, or peach to your favorite chili for a tantalizing contrast between hot and sweet.
Chili with alcohol: Either a cup of dry red wine or a bottle of beer adds a curious flavor punch to any red chili.
Chili with chocolate: The ancient chocolate drink, cacao, was often prepared using a pinch of chile. In modern America, we turn the recipe around and toss one ounce of semi-sweet chocolate into our favorite tomato-based chili.
Cincinnati Chili: Cincinnati is infamous for its strange chili-eating habits. This city’s chili is spiced with cinnamon. People eat pasta topped with chili more often than with marinara. And chili is built in “layers”: layer one is the meat, layer two is the meat with chopped onions, layer three adds beans, layer four adds shredded yellow cheddar, and layer five adds the spaghetti.
White Chili: Prepared with green chiles, chicken broth, chicken chunks and Great Northern beans. Add corn, cilantro, and cumin for extra flavor.
Vegetarian Chili: Chili can be hearty without the meat! Substitute corn, tofu, and/or extra beans and you’ll never miss the meat.
It might be tempting to stay inside this Saturday and offer up the excuse that Cornell serves chili in the dining hall every day. But the world of chili extends outside the confines of Trillium – go taste for yourself!