Chili Cook-Off contestants bring unique versions of dish to table

Chairman of the John J. Heinz Memorial Chili Cook-Off Bruce Jackson, of Northfield, showed off Our Lady of Sorrow’s Church Hall’s kitchen, where pots of chili will soon be prepared. ‘We fill the place up, just about,’ he said of the event, in its 11th year.

Caitlin Honan

For many, homemade chili becomes a staple dish during winter months. On Feb. 23, the 11th annual John J. Heinz Memorial Chili Cook-Off, held at Linwood's Our Lady of Sorrows Church, will bring out 12 contestants, all determined that their version of the classic meal is the best.

Since 2010, the event has honored Heinz, a former Egg Harbor Township mayor and chili lover, said Bruce Jackson, of the Linwood and Northfield Knights of Columbus, sitting in the church's hall, where the event will soon take place.

"We have a lot of people interested," the chairman of the cook-off said. "It has become a nice thing."

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The Northfield resident also said that over the years, the competition has brought creativity - including a volcano presentation - to unique flavors, some including chocolate.

And year after year, the spots to compete fill up fast, he said.

"The contestants are easy to come by," Jackson said of the amateur cooks. "It used to be a struggle to try and get 12 contestants, but now they call me.

"I've had three or four cold calls this year, and I don't know who they are or where they come from."

No matter the contestant's address, the recipes always come in all forms.

This year, Jackson described a few contestants' offerings and their accompanying themes, including Hillbilly chili, Luck of the Irish chili, pulled-pork chili and a turkey chili.

One of five judges, Bob Burns, of WOND-AM 1400, has judged the competition every year. For him, the experience has been as enjoyable as it is tasty.

"It's a blast," he said. "It's so much fun. People have all these different recipes. Each one is really different."

To impress this judge, though, cooks should be sure to incorporate some traditional flavors, including cumin, cayenne pepper, beans and a little bit of meat, he said.

"I want to taste the spices, but it can't be too fiery."

The recipe, however, is not the sole factor. Presentation is everything, Jackson said.

"I love it because every year it's different," he said of the elaborate displays. "It's really neat what they come up with."

The contestants each have a 3-foot space to decorate and elaborate on their recipe's theme. Awards are given to first-, second- and third-place contestants.

A prize also is given to the cook with the best presentation, Jackson said, adding that the category has often become the deciding factor in the case of a tie.

While the event's judges - local meteorologist Dan Skeldon, radio host Barbara Altman, Channel 40 sports director Pete Thompson and Ocean City restaurateur Jon Talese and Burns - taste individual portions of the warm, hearty dishes, attendees are welcome to a buffet of three chili selections and desserts.

The event, which begins at 4 p.m., will include live music. Proceeds from the night will be given to a Northfield family in need, Jackson said.

"Most of the contestants bring family members, and they stay the whole time," he said. "We fill this place up, just about."

Contact Caitlin Honan:


If you go

What: All Saints Council 6277 Knights of Columbus of Linwood and Northfield's John J. Heinz Memorial Chili Cook-Off

When: 4 to 7p.m., Feb. 23

Where: Our Lady of Sorrows Church, 724 Maple Ave., Linwood

How much: $8 for adults, $3 for children, $18 for a family of four or more

More info: Call 609-646-1861

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