February 21, 2011

Chili Fest Brings the Heat

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More than 8,000 people congregated on the Ithaca Commons Sunday for steaming hot chili, cornbread and cold brews in the 13th annual Great Downtown Ithaca Chili Cook-Off and WinterFest.

The festival was postponed on Saturday due to 50 to 60 miles-per-hour winds, according to the Downtown Ithaca Alliance’s website.

During this year’s event, 37 vendors competed in a chili contest and attendees bought tickets to taste meat, vegetarian and vegan chili throughout the day.

“Everybody’s so desperate at this time of year — give me chili or give me death! I wanted to get out of the house,” said Sarah Perry, an Ithaca resident who has been coming to the cook-off for three years.

“I’m impressed that this is Sunday, not even the day that it was supposed to be, and everyone still came,” Perry said.

Although attendance was down from last year, Matthew Riis, the marketing and events coordinator for the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, said that the festival still had a good turnout.

“We lost people who had travelled here, but overall a lot of the locals have tomorrow off, so they turned out in full force,” Riis said.

Many attendees were excited about the festival’s offerings this year.

“I’m just here to try chili — as much chili as I can until I get full.” Matt Raven ’09, Ithaca College, said. “And the beer tasting’s good at Ale House.”

According to Riis, attendees travelled from as far as two or three hours away to attend the cook-off.

“This is our first year. It’s really a big deal,” said Lyn Kiehl, a Buffalo resident who was in the area for a teacher’s week.

The Cook-Off also served as a way for the Ithaca community to gather at a time of year when the Commons sees less foot traffic than usual, according to Riis.

“The weather’s cold and there tends to be a lull in terms of commerce downtown. It’s a great way for us to get people to remember that downtown is the cultural and commercial center of the city and to get reacquainted with downtown,” Riis said. “The Bandwagon [Brewpub] guys said they felt like they were in a prize fight today, with the big bump in restaurant and bar activity.”

Riis also called the cook-off an “important showcase” for Ithaca’s emerging status as a “culinary outpost in upstate New York.”

In addition to chili, attendees could choose among beer and wine tastings.

“They have local restaurants and everything showcasing their stuff, I guess that’s pretty good. We’re about to get beer; that’s great!” said Peter Museo, who was standing in line for the Ale House’s beer tasting.

Restaurants were not the only institutions to serve food. At another food station, the Cayuga Nature Center served Dead Animal Chili, which had chicken as its primary ingredient.

“It’s good for us to get out and have a good time and let people know that we’re open year-round … [The chili festival] helps our visibility,” Cindy Rice, the director of Outdoor Education at the Cayuga Nature Center, said. “To not freeze to death, that is my hope for today, and to not give anyone food poisoning.”

Other vendors also took innovative approaches to this year’s cook-off.

“I was kind of nervous because it got postponed, but we did a meat chili this year which is something that we’ve never done before. I’m feeling a little sad for all the vegetarians that keep walking up, but we’ve gotten a great response,” Liz van Every, the deli manager at Greenstar, said. “We’re doing a local beef, local bean and local beer chili. There’s plenty of people out, so there’s nothing to worry about as far as getting everything sold.”

Greenstar, a cooperative grocery store in Ithaca, has been a part of Chilifest since its inception, according to van Every.

“We threw [selling cornbread] together last year in about a week,” said Jerry Dietz, the chair of the local Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation committee.

Dietz said that Ithaca Community Harvest volunteers “made about 900 pieces of cornbread last year,” which “sold it out in an hour and a half and made about $1100” for the Fresh Foods program at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School in Ithaca.

“This year we’ve made over 3,000 pieces of cornbread and hope to sell it all out. It’s going fast,” he said.

According to its website, Taste of the Nation works to end childhood hunger.

Check out further Sun coverage of the Ithaca Chilifest on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e331YsqdqSU

Original Author: Emily Coon