Feel the heat at the 14th Great Petaluma Chile Cook-off, Salsa and Beer Tasting, this Saturday, May 7, 2011, Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds
Leave lunch open this Saturday. You’ll be having chili for a cause–Cinnabar Theater’s fabulous children’s programs. In case you haven’t seen the huge banners displayed all around Petaluma, the 14th Great Petaluma Chili Cook-off, Salsa & Beer Tasting takes place this Saturday, May 7, 2011, from 1 to 4 p.m., at Herzog Hall at the Sonoma Marin fairgrounds. 50 teams of chili and salsa challengers and 15 Bay Area breweries are participating and there will be plenty of chili, salsa and beer to sample and judge. The goal–to determine the best of the best when it comes to meat chili, veggie chili, traditional salsa, fruit salsa. Defending their 2010 title for best chili by individual will be Tree Huggin Hippie; best chili by restaurant/ Larray’s Corner Market; best vegetarian chili/ Whole Foods; best traditional salsa/ CIA and best fruit salsa/ Petaluma Woman’s Club. There’s also a People’s Choice award given in each of the categories.
The cook-off’s founder and organizer, Laura Sunday—who also runs Taste of Petaluma every September– has high hopes for this year’s contest. Last year, the event was attended by about 1,000 people and raised about $35,000 for Cinnabar Theater’s youth programs which include education in the performing arts and Cinnabar’s Young Repertory Theater, which produces several fully staged productions annually and serves hundreds of students from Sonoma County and beyond.
Some chili contests adhere to purist rules about what chili is and isn’t and what it can and can’t be. Some contests, for example, don’t allow beans in chili. In Petaluma, things are flexible and Sunday doesn’t give entrants any rules about chili or salsa. “We’re not internationally sanctioned. I don’t disallow beans. I love beans. Beans are healthy and delicious. If you want to put beans in your chili, I will not say no. My only rules are no roadkill.”
How does it all work? Because there are only 50 contestants, and entry is handled on a first-come, first-served basis, anybody with a hot recipe and the requisite $65 to $75 entry fee who entered before the March 15, 2011 deadline, made the cut.
Each contestant has been asked to prepare a whopping 9 gallons of the recipe entered, enough for the panel of judges and community tasting. Judging is on the basis of taste and personal preference of the V.I.P. judging panel—a team of 13 foodies and community members selected by Dick Kapash, the retired founder of Petaluma’s SOLA Optical. “I can’t get enough of those fine chili dishes…the chili, salsa and beer just keep getting better every year,” said Kapash, who has worked with Laura Sunday for about 8 years planning the event. Each judge tastes either chili or salsa and votes. This year’s judges are Dick Kapash, David Glass, Ryan Williams, Pamela Torliatt, Steve Jaxon, Jason Jenkins, Michael J, Mike Harris, Elece Hempel, Chris Samson, Pete White, Geneva Anderson, and Joe Davis.
When asked to judge, I opted for salsa–refreshing, tart and spicy–I make and eat it several times per week and am always up for a new twist. And, frankly, I am interested in seeing how others adjust their recipes to get that fresh flavor burst in non-tomato season. When you’ve got juicy sun-ripened tomatoes at your fingertips, everything is already easier.
As for chili, Sunday remarked that it’s amazing how often the judges’ and people’s choice winners are one and the same. ” There are some good chilis, some that are not so good and some that rise above the rest and truly sing,” said Sunday. ”We find the chili winners tend to be medium in heat. Highly spiced, burning chili is not very popular with the judges or the public for their votes. People like a rich tomato flavor and color, thick with good texture, with meat that is easy to chew, very flavorful. Not one distinct flavor should hit you first like salt, or any particular spice or ingredient. All the flavors should be blended and melded perfectly. One spoonful of a great chili is not enough. A great chili should make you crave more.”
Although the main event on Saturday will be the chili and salsa contest, in Behren’s Park, just next to Herzog Hall, there will be music by Stony Point and Rule 5 and entertainment by dance companies FIERCE Dance Company and Raks Rosa Arabic Dance Production. (full entertainment schedule), plus plenty of refreshment. If you sign on for the beer tasting component of the event—an additional $15–you’ll have your fill of the offerings of 15 local micro-breweries producing the finest premium ales around.
What’s the likelihood of coming home with a great chili receipt? According to Sunday, it’s not up to her. “Some entrants want to share, but some want to take their recipe to their grave. Some are family traditions passed down through the generations. But not many stay with the same recipe year after year. It’s always evolving and changing. Everyone is trying to perfect their chili.”
Details: 1 to 5 p.m., rain or shine at Herzog Hall and Behren’s Park, Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds (at East Washington Street and Payran Streets), Petaluma, CA. Tickets: Chili and Salsa tasting only $25; kids under 12 $10, under 5 free. Chili, Salsa and Beer tasting: $40. Purchase in advance online or in person at event.