Despite its size, Ithaca is filled with food culture. Both universities and the city itself boast more restaurants per capita than New York City, and there’s a food festival for every season, including Applefest the last weekend of September and Ithacafest the last weekend of May. February is marked by the annual Downtown Ithaca Chili Cook-off, in which restaurants from around the city cook up chili concoctions ranging from traditional to the offbeat that only Ithaca can provide.
Sacrilege versus solidarity
Chilifest has been warming up The Commons for 16 years, but it’s not an officially sanctioned event of the International Chili Society, a non-profit organization that judges chili cook-offs for charities. According to their website, chili in the red or verde competitions must be made of meat, the appropriate chili pepper, and no beans or pasta. While there’s no requirement as to what kind of meat is in the chili, every winner in the 47-year history of the society has contained beef. Garnishes are also against the rules.
Ithaca’s location near dozens of Finger Lakes vegetable farms makes it a hub for vegetarian cuisine, which manifested itself this year into more than 11 non-meat chilis. This in combination with the presence of beans in the vast majority of offerings sets Ithaca’s chili cook-off apart from more regulated events.
What the event lacks in sanctioned standards, it makes up for in variety. Moosewood, a world-renowned vegetarian restaurant in the city, offered a filling southwestern chili topped with cilantro sour cream and a tortilla chip, and Max’s American Grill and Sports Bar made a meat and vegetable chili that Cornell senior and Texas native Nathan Ames called “the stuffed bell pepper of chili.”
The contest isn’t limited to restaurants, as the local hospital also entered the contest. Cayuga Medical Center’s Medicine Man Pork Belly chili, with large chunks of pork and a handmade pretzel spoon, won a tied first place in the People’s Choice award.
Kicking up dessert
While the presence of “chili the dish” dominated Chilifest, “chili the powder” was featured in some of the deserts that also entered the competition. Darlynne Overbaugh, owner of Life’s So Sweet Chocolate, has participated in the competition for four years with spicy sweets to give festival visitors a break from the heat.
“They kind of created a category for us because, like myself, there are other businesses that don’t have a kitchen that makes chili,” Overbaugh said. “The other chili item category was created to showcase these things that are chili-inspired.”
Overbaugh started her Chilifest career with a first place win with the Aztec truffle, which was part of Life’s So Sweet’s regular stock. She has since created a new treat each year: last year’s dessert winner was her chili salt caramel, and her 2014 entry was spicy chocolate bacon that won second place.
Felicia’s Atomic Lounge took first in the non-chili category this year with chocolate chili chipotle cupcakes. Owner Amelia Sauter entered the competition this year after she found a market for her cupcakes at the lounge. New cupcake flavors are introduced regularly, but the chocolate chili chipotle was created specifically for the competition.
“I don’t know if it can make it outside of Chilifest,” Sauter said. “It’s definitely more risky than our other cupcakes because you’re incorporating a pretty intense food flavor into a dessert.”
The 1,113 cupcakes made by Felicia’s sold out before the end of the afternoon.
While not the competition for the staunch traditionalist chili connoisseur, Ithaca’s Chilifest is a funky food festival that simultaneously captures the spirit of the city’s food culture and has something for everyone.
Revised 22/2/14 to reflect grammatical edits from my professor.