The aroma of fresh chili in crock pots, the flavor of countless spices and the chatter of old friends reconnecting, invigorated the senses of those who attended Friday night’s Chili Cook-Off at Sherman Hall in East Falls.
“If you can’t find a favorite chili here, then you’re missing the boat,” Gus Krebs, a lifetime “Fallser” said, scooping some of the mushy delicacy onto a tray. Krebs didn’t cook the chili he served, but was given the distinction of “server” for the night.
“You’ve gotta know the cook to do this,” he joked.
On the stage in the corner of Sherman Hall, Roger Marsh, the main organizer of the Chili Cook-Off, announced to the crowd that there was still time to submit ballots for the best chili of the night— ballots which would determine the winner of the highly sought after “People’s Choice Award.”
“I think chili is the kind of thing where you can really throw whatever in it,” said contestant Saskia Caporellie. Capporellie, who attended but didn’t compete in last year’s Chili Cook-Off, says that she wasn’t there for the awards, but for the community. This sentiment was echoed by every person, both cook and onlooker, in the room.
“No one is here to prove a point about anything, no one is here to show off,” says Cynthia Kishinchand as she peruses the crock-pot cluttered tables which snake around the hall.
“It’s something that’s an affordable neighborhood gathering,” she adds. “I’ve got to give them credit with the timing, too. It’s early enough so families can come with their children. “
The turnout this year was a little lower than usual, likely due to the fact that many residents who usually walk to Sherman Hall were turned off by the rain that was pouring outside. But, for the cooks and the roughly 80 people who enjoyed chili from folding chairs in the center of the room, a little rain wasn’t enough of a deterrent to prevent one of the East Falls Community Council’s (EFCC) main fundraisers.
“This money gets turned back to the community,” Tom Sauerman, President of the EFCC, says. Dangled loosely around his shoulders was a strand of red raffle tickets. A piece of paper taped on his sweater advertised the price of each ticket.
“We’re announcing Monday night that we’re giving out $5,000 in grants to East Falls organizations. We raise this money to give it back to the community.”
The PA system blared as the winners of the night were announced. The crowd roared in delight after each winner was declared, but the loudest cheers were reserved for “People’s Choice Award” winner, Gila Williams.
“I’ve been to this contest before but I’ve never won the ‘People’s Choice Award’ before today,” Williams said, flashing a smile almost as warm as the chili which earned her the win. She wasn’t expecting to be crowned “Chili-Champion” by her fellow neighbors.
“I used to own a coffee shop and I used to make it there,” she said. “Every time I make it, it never tastes quite the same—but it always turns out pretty good. I’m not a measurer, I don’t measure anything.”
Williams unseated the winner of the past five Chili Cook-Offs, John Wiggins, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“My wall’s gonna have a little hole in it now, but that’s okay,” says Wiggins. “I didn’t have the heat in it that I wanted to.”
Wiggins’ wife, Lisa, chats nearby with friend and “Best Vegetarian Chili” winner, Peg Harley, who makes a crack about her secret ingredient, “love,” being the cause of her success.
“Honestly, I think I’m the only one in the category, so that may be why I won,” she later said with a smirk to Lisa.
As the hall emptied, a few, young “Fallsers” took advantage of the newly created space with a rowdy game of tag. Nearby, parents and old friends exchanged affectionate goodbyes as they closed out a successful sixth year of a treasured neighborhood tradition.