If the competition for parking spaces at the Rosendale Recreation Center last Saturday afternoon was any indication, Women’s Studio Workshop (WSW)’s seventeenth annual Chili Bowl Fiesta was a rip-roaring, tongue-tingling success. By the time the $5 early-bird entry fee was waived at 4 p.m., the place was jammed and the joint was jumpin’ to the upbeat tunes of Dog on Fleas. Patrons of the arts of all ages were facing the difficult decision of picking out their favorite hand-thrown ceramic bowl or mug to purchase, take to the food line, and fill with chili.
“By the end of the night we will have had about 800 people” attending the event, said Ruth McKinney Burket, WSW’s ceramic studio manager. “It’s a great turnout. It’s packed in there.”
The Chili Bowl Fiesta, one of WSW’s most consistently lucrative fundraising events, had raised about $18,000 for the Binnewater-based arts organization in each of the previous two years, Burket said, and would be at least equally successful in 2014. “Last year we made 740 bowls and almost sold out,” she said. “This year we made about 850.”
In previous years, the mass effort required to create so many chili-bearing vessels by hand was mostly crammed into the last two months preceding the February event. Burket said that the group had been working on creating a supply all year this time. “We have a group that gets together every Wednesday night,” she said. “All of them are volunteers. Some of them are former interns.”
A core group of about five people attended religiously, according to Burket. One of these was this year’s full-time WSW ceramics intern, a Californian named Jessica Fong. “There are also 30 or 40 professional potters in the community who donate anywhere from a couple of hours to two days of work.” Spreading out the effort over a long time period had paid off, Burket said: “I think the quality of the bowls has improved a lot.”
Certainly the containers on display on half a dozen long tables inside the Rec Center presented a challenging array of choices. Prices ranged from $10 for something rough and rustic to $70 for an exquisitely formed, hand-painted and glazed product of a master ceramist’s art. Choices, choices. After deciding on one (or more), each attendee still had to choose which variety of chili he or she wanted from among the 20 or so local eateries that donated their concoctions.
Meat chilis were displayed on one table, vegetarian chilis on another, with three choices of bread and a variety of toppings laid out in between. New batches of steaming chili kept coming out of the kitchen to replace swiftly emptied stainless steel trays. In a matter of minutes the identifying signs were switched over from Fleisher’s, Market Market and Tuthill House to the Egg’s Nest, Mother Earth’s Storehouse and the Mountain Brauhaus.
“The stuff from the Red Brick Tavern, that was excellent,” judged Justin Spotts, sitting at a table with his wife Jamie and daughter Jade, age eight. It was the Ulster Park family’s first visit to the event. Jade seemed more impressed with the kid-friendly music than with the taste of chili.
Her parents were enthusiastic. “It’s awesome, as long as you can find a seat,” said Justin. “We’ll probably come back next year – we have to add to our bowl collection.”
Building a collection of mismatched-but-artsy pottery is a motivator commonly cited by repeat attendees. “Just about all our bowls are from the Chili Bowl. We broke a couple last year, so we had to stock up again,” said Jack Ruddick of Hurley. “We support this pretty regularly. We started coming eight or ten years ago.”
Ruddick gave Fleischer’s chili a big thumbs-up: “It had a nice, deep chili flavor. It starts mellow and gets hotter.”
The musical selections started out hot and just got hotter as the afternoon progressed, with plenty of kids and parents working off their meal on the dancefloor. Dog on Fleas played several of the children’s songs for which they’re best-known – including one peppered with barnyard noises – but didn’t stop there. Their eclectic set ranged from a down-and-dirty, trombone-heavy rendition of the theme from Peter Gunn to the Bo Diddley chestnut “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” to reggae, klezmer and jump-jazz numbers. A good time was had by all.
Jack Ruddick summed up the Chili Bowl Fiesta’s enduring appeal in a few words: “It’s not your usual cookie-cutter fundraiser,” he said. “Everybody ends up with a bowl, so everybody wins something.”