February 24, 2013

Ithaca Chili Cookoff: Where Food Meets Community

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My first Ithaca Chili Cook-Off will certainly not be my last. As you can see from my awkward YouTube appearance, it was a unique experience to serve up some delicious chili and to welcome Ithacans to this wonderful event. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire cook-off, even though I wholly disagree that Taverna Banfi did not place in the day’s top chilis (we were robbed!!!). Now, how to write a whole post about this year’s Chili Cook-Off … should I write about my favorite chilis? No, the judges have already spoken. Should I write about the awesome three-hour nap I took after freezing my ***** off for six hours? Probably; it was the best nap ever. To keep this strictly about “dining,” though, I will write about how perfectly this event shows the vital role that food plays in a community. Just know that it was an amazing, warm, blanket-smothered nap. Saturday, February 16 was a cold day. The Commons were like a wind tunnel, and in the shade it felt around negative 50 degrees, but that didn’t stop hoards of Ithacans from lining up to try dozens of different chilis. People socialized with those they came with, and made new friends with their fellow freezing line-mates. Parents led their children around, showing them all that Ithaca has to offer. These chili-lovers were there not just to eat some warm, tasty interpretations of this classic dish, but also to explore and support their community. People come together around food. You get meals with your friends, your roommates and your family. Regardless of how good the food is, your sheer proximity forces some sort of conversation. Pretty much every major holiday is accompanied by some sort of meal. An event like the Chili Cook-Off is the rare occasion that allows a larger community to come together. Let’s not underestimate the allure that food alone can create. Something tells me that Ithaca Bowling Festival wouldn’t attract the same crowd, and the Ithaca Film Festival doesn’t spark the same kind of interest for people of all ages. The visceral reaction that hot chili can trigger on a cold day is uncommon. That people will stand in huge lines just to get a one-ounce portion of chili shows how transcendent food can be. In short, the Ithaca Chili Cook-Off is not only about food. Chili is a broad term that includes any stew with some combination of tomato and dried peppers. The fact that so many vendors could produce their own flavorful versions demonstrates Ithaca’s creativity and diversity. Among my favorites was a Thai-inspired chili that combined flavors from vastly different cultures. Who knows, maybe the winner of this year’s Bangkok Chili Festival was an Ithaca-style chili. With such a broad canvas, each eatery put a unique spin on the quintessential American dish. And the community came out to experience what each chili brought to the table. As I came home in the late afternoon, I put on my warmest pajamas and threw myself under my bed covers. I slowly began to defrost and feeling returned to my feet. In the few seconds before I passed out, I realized how satisfied I was not only with all of the chilis that I had gotten to try, but, more importantly, with the powerful sense of community that I had experienced.

Original Author: Zachary Siegel