In its nine years of existence, the Simon Kenton Chili Cook-Off has grown from crowding the event into a small notch on the fringes of Monument Square to filling two full city blocks of downtown Urbana. Originally limited to a handful of chili heads, the 2015 affair conducted Saturday boasted 32 Chili Cook-Off entrants, all of whom were trying to season and stir their way to first place, for which they receive a large trophy, $1,000 cash money and bragging rights for 364 days. Throw in a couple of dozen vendors, crowd-pleasing contests, a great band and a cornhole tournament and one can see why a dinky corner of the Square no longer cuts it for the Cook-Off
The growth of the Simon Kenton Chili Cook-Off over the past decade owes a big nod to the marvelous sense of whimsy surrounding the whole affair. One thousand clams for a blue ribbon bowl of chili tends to attract both the experts and the loons, who are frequently one and the same. This is how the passengers of the S.S. Minnow – Gilligan, Ginger and the Howells included – walked off with the Best Booth trophy and $100. Another booth found a trio of black-hatted cooks who had a spicy ideological spat with Ring of Fire Chili, causing them to bolt Ring of Fire and form their own radical-splinter-chili faction known as Chili Con Suave. Black Cat Chili had some Schrodinger’s Cat Hot Sauce which could be considered both hot and not-hot at the same time, as long as it stays in the bottle. Toss in the fact that all of these wackos make great chili, and you have a winning recipe for a few laughs, some great Tex-Mex and a throng of visitors.
Saturday marked the first appearance of a dunk tank at the Cook-Off and it did better than brisk business, with a constant queue ready to plunk down a dollar apiece and take a shot at dunking a county commissioner. Champaign County Sheriff Matt Melvin gamely took his turn in the wet seat and got dunked 52 times, much to the unrestrained and animated amusement of the “carnies” running the show. The carnies were having entirely too much fun watching the man going “surf’s up” and again to the point where the High Sheriff would have been entirely justified in having their cars plastered in parking tickets and towed to Calgary.
All joking aside, the City of Urbana ought to make a primer on how to organize a downtown shindig. Many, many local civic festivals and fairs could profit from Urbana’s wonderful example on how to plan such an event from soup to nuts, then execute the plan in an orderly and proficient manner, as the good volunteers did Saturday.
For instance, just before noon the first two blocks of north Main Street were filled with assorted chili cook-off contestants, vendors, volunteers and pedestrians milling around in the middle of the street and paying no particular mind. Five minutes later, the crowd parted like the Red Sea before Moses to allow the Hoopla Parade to make way, a full-blown affair complete with marching bands, horses, floats, Shriners and vintage cars. Five minutes after the last mini-car hit Monument Square, the crowd closed ranks and went about its business with out blinking an eye. Two-car funerals have caused more fuss.
Organizers also did visitors the great politeness of having events start on time, a rarity for events like this in other cities and towns. The booths were spacious and well-placed, allowing for plenty of room in front of the stage on the Courthouse steps and keeping the intersection of Main and Court relatively clear. The beer and wine vendor was wisely conjoined with the cornhole tournament on the west side of the Main/Court Street intersection, and adult beverage areas were clearly marked and universally honored. Athletes from U.U. and Urbana City Schools periodically swept through and policed the grounds, keeping the streets clean and rubbish-free. The entertainment in the form of The Temps, a very talented Springfield-area cover band with an interesting eye for fashion, was well-chosen and appropriate as they played everything from the Ramones to the B-52s. Volunteers in the familiar red t-shirts were everywhere, keeping things on track and on the clock.
For the second straight year, Abe Froman’s Sausage Kings of Chicago took home the Judges’ Choice for the best chili, and along with it a huge hunk of hardware and $1,000. The OSU Alumni of Champaign County took home second place, and Blackburn Afterburn, a first-year entrant from Columbus, won third-place honors. The Spice Girls had their names announced three times, earning the People’s Choice Award for best chili, second place for booth decoration and fifth place for the Judges’ Choice.
For those chili heads who think they can do better, the 10th annual Simon Kenton Chili Cook-Off has already been scheduled for Sept. 24, 2016.
Start working on your recipes now.
Tom Stephens is a regular contributor to this newspaper.