A roundup of local chili challenges

Previewing this weekend’s Chili Challenge at Water Street Market are Michelle Walsh of the Mudd Puddle, Seth Antona of Clemson Brothers and Matthew Sweeney, Chris Hosch and Theresa Fall of The Parish. (Photos by Lauren Thomas)

The humble bowl of chili con carne was once the province of mid-19th century cowboys and the incarcerated in Texas. Designed to stretch out the cheapest cuts of meat into something edible, the savory stew is now mainstream, devoured with gusto by most of the population coast-to-coast. (The cowboys, by the way, made dried bricks of chili, hydrating it on the trails as they traveled, and the prisoners apparently enjoyed the stew they were served so much they were known to write the prisons for chili recipes after their release.) A century later, the first chili-making competition was held at the Texas State Fair in 1952, and ever since, chili challenges have warmed up community gatherings. Here in the Northeast, January and February are chili competition season.

The Local Ingredient Chili Challenge at Water Street Market in New Paltz
Sunday, January 26 from noon to 3 p.m.


First out of the gate this year is the 12th annual running of the Local Ingredient Chili Challenge on Sunday, January 26 at Water Street Market, 10 Main Street in New Paltz. Admission to the event is free. As many as 20 competitors will set up in the courtyard with at least five gallons of their best chili ready to dish out in two-ounce portions. Attendees purchase tickets to sample the chili at a cost of $1 each, 12 tickets for $10 or 25 for $20. All proceeds raised benefit St. Joseph’s Food Pantry. The event typically raises between $1,000 and $3,000 for the organization.

In support of the local economy, each chili must contain at least five locally sourced or grown ingredients. The more local ingredients used, the more weight it carries with the judges. The chili-makers will compete for first and second place in the categories of Best Overall, Best Vegetarian, Best Professional (made by a restaurant or professional chef), People’s Choice and Most Original. Home chefs must have the use of a commercial kitchen to make their chili.

The competitors in the Local Ingredient Chili Challenge put a great deal of thought into their creations, with returning chili-makers often making a different chili for each year’s challenge. The standard recipe for chili includes meat and vegetables as the foundation, simmered with tomatoes, onions, spices and sometimes beans, but chili-makers might include unexpected ingredients, too, such as beer, coffee, lime juice, carbonated soda or chocolate. 

The mouthwatering scent of simmering chili permeating the marketplace during the event makes it hard to resist sampling all of the different varieties available. Attendees are advised to get there early, as some competitors sell out before the event is over. For weather updates, should conditions be iffy, visit Water Street Market on Facebook prior to attending.

Best of Fest Chili Competition at WinterFest on the Hudson Valley Rail Trail in Highland
Saturday, February 8 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Eva Meyer of Highland samples chili at Highland’s WinterFest last year.

The annual WinterFest held at the Hudson Valley Rail Trail Depot in Highland, is co-sponsored by the Hudson Valley Rail Trail Association (HVRTA) and Highland Rotary Club. Admission costs $2, with children age six and under getting in free. Proceeds benefit the maintenance of the Hudson Valley Rail Trail.

This will be the 23rd outing for WinterFest, first conceived by locals Jerry and Geri Luke, then-owners of a bed-and-breakfast who wanted to help support maintenance of the Rail Trail. With the annual event now firmly established in the Highland community, the permanent home for WinterFest is the Highland Rotary Pavilion adjacent to the circa-1915 train caboose on the Hudson Valley Rail Trail at 101 New Paltz Road in Highland.

The family-friendly event offers attendees tractor-pulled wagon rides, roasted chestnuts and toasted marshmallows, light snacks and refreshments, woodcarving demonstrations and activities for children. But the centerpiece of WinterFest is the Best of Fest Chili Competition in the pavilion, in which chili-makers compete for first, second and third place bragging rights as Best of Fest.

The chili is served up in two-ounce cups purchased by tickets sold at 50 cents each or a “try-them-all” ticket available for $8. Approximately 20 pots of spicy or mild, meat or veggie chili varieties are donated by chefs that include home cooks, professional restaurateurs, community organizations and local fire departments. Voting is “blind,” with chili pots numbered and even the volunteers dishing out the samples unaware of who created the chili they’re serving. For updates on WinterFest, visit the HVRTA’s Facebook page.

Chili Cook-Off fundraiser for Gardiner Fire Department and Parks & Rec
Saturday, February 29 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The chili competition fundraiser to benefit Town of Gardiner Fire Department and Parks & Recreation is a new entrant into the field, taking place on Saturday, February 29 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Gardiner Firehouse, 2349 Route 44/55 in Gardiner. The Parks & Rec department maintains the 25-acre Majestic Memorial Park in the hamlet, which includes a picnic pavilion, toddler playground, softball field, basketball and handball court, fishing pond and nature trail leading to the Wallkill River. The Gardiner Fire Department and EMS answered 548 calls in 2018 and 496 as of mid-December of last year.

Attendees at the newest chili competition will pay $8 per person to sample chili and vote for their favorite (kids under age 12 pay $3). Professional chefs and amateurs alike are welcome to enter the cook-off at no cost, with entry forms available at gardinerfireandrescue.org.

Women’s Studio Workshop Chili Bowl Fest fundraiser at SUNY Ulster
Saturday, February 29 from 2 to 7 p.m.

The Women’s Studio Workshop will host their 23rd annual Chili Bowl Fest fundraiser in the dining hall at the SUNY Ulster campus, 491 Cottekill Rd. in Stone Ridge, on Saturday, February 29. Early bird attendees, who get first crack at the one-of-a-kind, handmade ceramic bowls the chili is served in, pay a $10 admission fee with later arrivals at the event getting in free from 4-7 p.m.

This is a very well-attended event each year, with the number of ever-increasing visitors necessitating the move in recent years to larger quarters at SUNY Ulster. The Chili Bowl Fest fundraiser offers nearly 1,000 handmade ceramic bowls, mugs and tumblers for purchase, each of which includes a heaping serving of homemade chili in meat and vegetarian varieties, donated by local restaurant chefs. (For those who don’t want to eat out of their bowl at the event, paper bowls are available, as are paper bowls of chili at nominal cost for those not buying ceramics.) Live music heightens the camaraderie and raffles are offered.

There’s also a companion event related to the Chili Bowl Fest: Community Clay Day on Saturday, February 1 at the Women’s Studio Workshop, 722 Binnewater Lane in Kingston. Three sessions open to all ages from noon to 1 p.m., 3-4 p.m. or 6-7 p.m. welcome participants to make pots or decorate pre-made bowls to be sold during the annual Chili Bowl Fest. All bowls made or decorated that day go to help raise funds for WSW, but admission to the workshops is free and fun. An RSVP for those wishing to participate is required; email info@wsworkshop.org or call (845) 658-9133 to reserve a spot.