April 2, 2006 — Everything Chili! That was the menu offering at each of the 19 booths manned by participants in the annual United Way Chili Cook-Off at Divi Carina Bay Resort on Sunday.
Those who were brave enough to surrender their taste buds paid 50 cents to sample choices of mild to flaming-hot chili cooked to satisfy vegetarians or those looking for something meatier. Cold beer and bottled water were handy to wash down the spicier concoctions.
"All the money goes to the United Way," said Anita Davila, who has pulled together the cook-off for five years with assistance from a slew of volunteers from the 10 member agencies the United Way benefits – Boys and Girls Club, Bethlehem House, Catholic Charities, Civil Air Patrol, Interfaith Coalition, Legal Services of the Virgin Islands, Men's Coalition, Ebenezer Youth Steel Orchestra, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and St. Croix Rescue.
At the Divi on Sunday the cooks were at their stations, set up along the beach as early as 5 a.m., chopping onions and a variety of peppers and vegetables.
Some of them even had hopes of being chosen Chili King or Queen for the Day. The winner goes on to Terlingua, Texas, for the international competition in November.
John Turner and his team, It's Island Cocktail, hoped for the crown on Sunday.
"This is an original Texas chili — what they called a covered-wagon recipe — it don't have a whole lot to it because they didn't have a whole lot to cook with back them," Turner explained.
While many of the other cooks said their recipes were secret, Turner, who is participating in the contest for the second year, said his was a mixture of chili powder, onions and meat.
"That's about it," he said of the simple recipe. "You either like it or you don't."
Apparently many did.
"We went through 23 gallons and have about two gallons left," Turner said at 3 p.m. of his Sunday's chili concoction.
Nearby, a member of his six-person team served a side of Mexican cornbread – made with jalapeños and corn – to Paulette Simon who dared to try the super hot chili.
"It's spicy but it's good," Simon said, her eyes closed as she savored the first taste. She didn't gag from the heat, shed tears or beg for water, as one sampler before her did.
Simon said it was the third table that she'd visited. She also liked the chili offered at the Aloha Chili booth.
"It was chili with all the fixings, from raw onions and roasted garlic to Monterrey jack cheese with sour cream," she said. "Their chili wasn't as spicy, but it was more seasoned."
Simon said there was something else she liked more than the chili samples on Sunday.
"The atmosphere, it's very nice," she said. "I just moved here from New York and getting used to the culture and this is a good way to start."
Debi Smith and Kim Chapman were a two-woman team at the CrossTech Boiler Services booth. They wooed customers with mild chili served with Fritos corn chips. This too was Texas-inspired.
"It's a chili that has a lot of flavor. It's not too hot but spicy; and the reason we do Fritos is because in Texas we have what we call a 'Fritos pie,'" she said. "You take a bowl and line it up [with corn chips], put chili in it, put cheese and jalapenos on it and you eat it."
Smith said it was her fourth year taking part in the cook-off and that she was happy to be a contestant.
"I want to give back to the community. That's a big part of it," she said.
She and Chapman were at their booths from 7 a.m. — two hours before the contest kicked off at 9 a.m. — to prepare. Smith said she cheated a bit.
"I chopped all of my ingredients a day before and once we got here I just stirred the pot and let the chili cook," she said with a laugh. "The longer it cooks, the better it is."
Retired businessman Percy Hollins has attended all five cook-offs.
"I enjoy it all the time," he said Sunday, adding that his son, Joe Hollins, was a participant with the Pirate's Chili of the Caribbean team.
And, the elder Hollins said that he had so much chili that he considered skipping dinner.
"I probably had two dozen in all," he said of the samples of chili he purchased.
Davila said last year the cook-off raised $20,000, and she hoped this year's proceeds would be the same or better.
She said she was especially pleased with the turnout, pointing out the miles and miles of cars along the highway near the hotel — an indication of just how many were in attendance.
"This is a family affair," Davila said of one aspect she likes best about the cook-off. "We get a cross section of everybody, and for the participants, it's a labor of love."
Davila said it's a labor of love for her, too, and all who assist to make the event go smoothly.
"Without the sponsors, the volunteers and member agencies, we wouldn't be able to pull this off," she said. "I am so grateful to them."
This year's sponsors were Coors Light, Evian Water, Divi Carina Beach Resort, V.I. Department of Tourism, West Indian Co. Ltd., Isle 95 and its sister stations, Turner St. Croix, Wyatt V.I., Triangle Construction and Maintenance, Merchant's Market of St. Croix, Avis Rent-A-Car, Capitol Tees, United Way of St. Croix, Marriott Frenchman's Reef, Plaza Extra, and Caribbean Auto Mart of St. Croix.
Davila also thanked the Police, Public Works and Agriculture departments, which she said assisted with security and setting up the booths and tents.
Like the Texas Society of the Virgin Islands Chili Cook-Off, the United Way Chili Cook-Off is part of the Chili Appreciation Society International, which was charted to raise money for charities through the promotion of chili. Each year the organization oversees preliminary cook-offs scattered far and wide — from the United States to Canada and the Virgin Islands.
The Texas Society of the V.I. was founded in 1985 and since then has held annual chili cook-offs to raise funds.
That cook-off is scheduled for Aug. 20 at Bolongo Beach. Past cook-offs have been held at Sapphire Beach Resort and John Brewer's Bay and benefited the local chapter of the American Red Cross, St. Thomas Rescue, V.I. Institute of Performing arts, the child advocacy agency Kidscope Inc., and St. Thomas Swimming Association among others.
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