Saturday’s Ocala chili party has stirred up fun for decades

Penny Garrett, left, laughs as Brian Vanderlip portrays a crazed mad scientist in a previous Marion County Chili Cook-Off. The 31st annual event is planned Saturday at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion in Ocala. (Doug Engle/Staff photographer/File)

Published: Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 11:57 a.m.

You never know who — or what — you’re going to run into at the Marion County Chili Cook-Off.


31st Marion County Chili Cook-Off

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Southeastern Livestock Pavilion, 2232 NE Jacksonville Road, Ocala
Cost: $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors, $1 for ages 3-12
Info: 867-6929,

You could meet a giant walking chili pepper, taste chili with cowboys, spend time with flappers or just listen to bands with hippies.

“There always seem to be a lot of hippies,” said Lucy Lesbirel, co-coordinator of this year’s event. “We have seen it all over the years. Some people go all out.”

The hippies and flappers and walking, talking chili peppers are simply part of the landscape for the county’s biggest fall food festival. Community teams brewing up chili dress up in all manner of costumes to enhance the themes of their booths. And, Lesbirel said, attendees dress up, too.

But amid all the costumes, it’s really the chili that takes center stage here, not to mention The Cornerstone School — the event’s benefactor.

Now in its 31st year, the Cook-Off has become more than a food festival and fundraiser. It is, without question, one of Marion County’s most beloved traditions.

This year’s Cook-Off runs Saturday, and organizers say 1,000 gallons of chili will be prepared for the event at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion. Cornerstone parents and volunteers make about 250 gallons, with the remaining 750 gallons coming from the competing teams. Each of this year’s 41 teams is required to make 15 gallons, but some make 30 or more.

There are two categories of chili at this event. The judged chili requires strict rules (no beans or pasta, for example). Teams must prepare this chili the morning of the event and follow specific guidelines; it will be tasted, pondered and rated by judges.

Then there is the chili served to all attendees. This chili has beans, pasta, rice and every combination available. We’re talking white chili, vegetarian chili, venison chili, sausage chili, chicken chili and, the most popular, beef chili.

Attendees buy tickets for 25 cents and use them to purchase chili. Buy a sample for one ticket and, if you like it, order a big cup for three tickets.

Not a chili fan? No worries. A food court will offer hamburgers, hot dogs, pulled pork sandwiches, fries, bake-sale treats and even beer. There is even a cake, pie and salsa competition.

There also will be entertainment, including headlining band 4Play. Also look for belly dancers and local dance teams.

Children’s activities will include bounce houses, a jumbo slide, carnival games and face painting.

While being an official judge may sound like fun, it is serious and — sometimes — risky business. They judge the chili on flavor, chili pepper taste, texture, consistency, meat seasoning, aroma and color.

New to the competition this year will be judges selected from the crowd of attendees to rate the hottest chili. “There are some people who really love the hot, hot chili,” Lesbirel said. “So we’ll be looking for chili enthusiasts that day to help with the judging.”

The event’s competition is always hot.

Teams old and new compete for top categories such as Best of Show Chili, Best of Show Booth and People’s Choice and subsequent bragging rights.

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