February 22, 2005

So Hot Right Now

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It’s a little known fact, but every February for the past seven years, Ithaca has tossed aside its dedication to environmental responsibility, ignored renewable resources and ozone emission standards and willingly allowed its residents to produce more methane than the entire cow population of northern India. If you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m talking about Ithaca’s Annual Chili Cook-Off and Winterfest. I doubt that anyone who spent the day in line with me would have complained about a little Greenhouse effect. For those of us brave enough to stomach the cold (or should I say the habenero peppers), the Commons opened up and overflowed (much like a proverbial kettle of chili), as students, locals and families gorged themselves on tongue curling spices and Pepcid A.C.

The best thing about Chili-Fest is that it always creeps up on you at the last minute when you are least expecting it. It’s barely publicized, hardly well-known, and positively never overhead amidst the latest gossip at Trillium. It’s as if suddenly there’s something different brewing in the air, and you can just taste the impending shmorgashboard. Once you know its coming, it’s hard to be anything but overjoyed: “At last! I can cut free from tests and studying, and bask in the true culinary talents of Ithaca’s finest chili purveyers!”

This year I tried to arrive at the cook-off early to avoid the problem I faced last Winter, when all but a few of the 24 gallon vats that each competitor is encouraged to bring ran dry. Unfortunately for me, I forgot to consider the passion most Ithaca residents have for a hot cup of chili in the dead of winter, and spent nearly 35 minutes searching for a downtown parking space. Now, you might be asking yourself, “35 minutes!? For parking!? It couldn’t be worth it!”

However, I want to make it perfectly clear to all you “Apple Fest” wimps out there: Chili-Fest goers mean business. So, after walking down six flights of the parking garage stairs, I strode courageously into the cold, ready to wage war upon the frigid air and impending heartburn. Stepping into the Commons, I realized I had once again underestimated the potential danger of Chili-Fest, as I was greeted by Wild Bill — a man dressed like an old west cowboy — cracking a two-tailed leather whip around his head. After ducking and dodging his potentially lethal blows, I made my way over to one of the many sample ticket booths.

It was finally time to indulge in my third year of chili mayhem. Over 25 steaming, aromatic booths stood before me. Freshman year I had made a pact with one of my friends that I would “sample” them all. But then again, I also remember being practically comatose for the next two weeks, so I knew that this time around I would have to choose carefully.

Now, when it comes to chili, Ithaca has it all: from beefy stews, to thick vegetarian concoctions, to even the specialty curry chilis from A Taste of Thai. Yet the chili of the day had to be from Ralph’s Ribs (on Route 13), as his line recalled John Stewart’s impressive turnout that infamous Wednesday morning. Ralph’s perfect mix of hearty beans, ground beef, melted cheddar and tangy self-bottled sauces captured the appetites of chili addicts all day.

I waited for Ralph’s personal recipe for nearly 20 minutes, and watched as people bounced from foot-to-foot — desperately trying to keep the blood flowing to the beat of a live blue-grass band’s appropriate rendition of “Stayin’ Alive.” Ralph, a 21-year veteran of RPU dining hall, took home the prize for best presentation — even though I thought he deserved chili of the year. Did I mention he’s now delivering?

I left the Commons just a few tastes later: tired, cold and exhausted, but more importantly, imbued with a renewed love of Ithaca and its residents. Chili-Fest to me has become more than just a day to meddle with my internal organs and eat obscene amounts of spicy food. It is symbolic of what’s important to everyone here: coming together with friends and family for a good time, no matter how cold it is or how long it takes to park. And while I don’t expect any AIM profiles to soon read, “Chili Fest ’05! I heart you guys!!!!!” I’ll be waiting anxiously for next year’s batch.

Archived article by Ben Jurist
Sun Contributor