A rookie judge’s journey through the chili cook-off
By: LAURIE KNOWLES CALLANAN Record Express Correspondent, Staff Writer
What’s it take to be a chili cook-off judge at Fire & Ice?
First of all, you have to like chili, and lots of it – 17 cups in about 20 minutes. And chances are, you’re probably a local celebrity in what is now the Coolest Small Town in America.
That means you might be on the school board, borough council, or maybe you’re a police officer or firefighter, or perhaps the superintendent of schools. If you’re a Penn State alumnus who played football with the New England Patriots, that would probably qualify. And if you helped create the festival that plays host to the chili contest, that might give you an inside track to the judging table as well.
In the case of Karen Weibel, being president of the board of decision-makers known as Lititz Borough Council gave her a clear bipartisan edge in judging Saturday’s spicy showdown. When asked to critique these culinary delights, she immediately accepted.
"I like chili," she said.
Qualification #1, check.
"I don’t like chili that burns the taste buds out of my mouth," she added, which is why Weibel and the other judges all had plenty of bottled water, just in case.
Editor’s Note: Water as an antidote for spice is like pouring the same on a grease fire. A tall glass of milk is your best bet to beat the heat. (this editor’s note is in no way influenced by local dairy farmers who also subscribe to the Lititz Record Express).
As it turned out, there were no extremely hot and spicy chilis at this year’s cook-off. A few were medium spicy, with hot Italian sausage or hot peppers. Most were medium to mild, and a few were fairly mild, like creamy white chicken chili.
Each of the six judges were presented with a tray of the 17 chilis in numbered cups. There was no indication as to who made the chili.
In addition to Weibel, the judges included school board member and former Super Bowl XXXI right guard Todd Rucci, Fire & Ice founder Dawn Rissmiller, Warwick School District superintendent Dr. April Hershey, Lititz Borough Police officer and Lititz Fire Company volunteer Jared Hahn, and Chef Tom Gillin of Blue Ridge Cable TV’s "Cooking for Class."
Rucci, Rissmiller and Hahn have been judges in the past. Weibel and Hershey were first-timers.
"I have all these cups of chili in front of me, so I have to figure out how to organize them," said Weibel, who is more familiar with balancing a borough budget.
Each judge had a clean sheet of paper, with numbered blank spaces to allow for notes on each chili.
"I am just going to taste each one and separate them into my top choices," said Weibel. A few chilis are quickly eliminated, too spicy or not flavorful enough. A few others are in the in-between category. They might be tasted again to see if they move up the list.
"I like a chili with a little something extra," she explained, immediately determining that one sweet and smoky chili has chocolate in it. This is Lititz, after all. Chocolate is a staple; especially if it’s Wilbur chocolate.
Her other two contenders are a completely different type of chili, made with chicken and a delicate hint of lime. There is also tequila in there, a flavor Weibel is trying to discern. The other chili is a more classic red chili with meat and beans. She liked the flavor; not too spicy.
"I like a chili that is chunky, not too liquidy or soupy," she notes.
It doesn’t take long. Weibel and the other judges are quickly coming up with their favorites. Each will present a trophy that relates to their celebrity status in Lititz.
"My trophy is the Taste of Lititz award, which seems appropriate," she said.
As the other judges are determining their top choices, Weibel has made up her mind. She likes the sweet and smoky chocolate laced chili. It has roasted pork and, just as Weibel had hoped, the chocolate is from Wilbur. It’s a dark bittersweet variety known as Brandywine.
As Weibel announces her winning chili, she is pleased to learn that it was made by Mark Wolownik of the new Lititz restaurant Pork & Wally’s at 56 N. Broad St., right next door to Wilbur’s.
"Congratulations," said Weibel as she presented the Taste of Lititz trophy to Wolownik. "I haven’t been to Pork & Wally’s yet, but I will very soon."
The rest of the judges present their awards. Hahn awards the Five Alarm trophy to Lititz United Methodist Church for their red tomato- based chili with hot sausage and venison. Rissmiller breaks away from her usual choices for the Founders Award and picks the white chicken chili from Woodridge Pool which has rotisserie chicken and black beans.
"I think I was just in the mood for chicken chili this year," said Rissmiller.
Seasoned pro Rucci presents his All-Star award to Texas Roadhouse, a very meaty chili with big chunks of ground beef and steak. Gillin presents his Chef’s Choice award to Heart of Lancaster for a hearty prime rib chili made by their CEO Bob Moore.
Hershey gives her No Chili Left Behind award to Dosie Dough. Like Weibel, the newcomer judge likes a chili with something unexpected. In the case of Dosie Dough’s entry, it is Atomic Java Chili with dark roasted coffee and brisket.
When asked if they would like to judge again, both Weibel and Hershey agreed that it was great fun. "Of course," they replied.
"It was a pleasure to be a judge, I would definitely do it again," Weibel added.
To the best of our knowledge, there is no chili served during regular borough council sessions.
Rissmiller explained that each of the six judges gives out a separate award, taking into account different tastes and moods. So far, no two judges have chosen the same chili. If that were to happen, they would consult and determine a new favorite, to avoid duplication.
Along with the judge’s awards, there was a People’s Choice award, voted on by the more than 1,100 people who attended the event in Warwick High School’s cafeteria. This year’s People’s Choice Award went to Heart of Lancaster, the same chili selected by Chef Gillin.
The Spirit Award was presented to Vigis Parties for their chicken, tequila and lime chili.
The votes from the public determined how much money would go to each of the chili chefs and their charities. People’s Choice raised $745 for March of Dimes. The rest of the beneficiaries included Vigis Parties for Breast Cancer Awareness, Will Harris for the Alzheimer’s Association, Moravian Manor for the Lititz recCenter, Lititz United Methodist Church for the Appalachian Trail Mission Project, Grace Church, Sturgis Haus for the Lititz Fire Company, LutherCare for the Lititz Public Library, Texas Roadhouse for KPETS, Jim Owens for Castaway Critters, Dosie Dough for Ephrata Area Rehabilitation Services (EARS), Pork & Wally’s for Hospice of Lancaster, Burk’s Bookkeeping for House of His Creation, United Zion for Wounded Warriors, and Woodridge Pool for Service Dogs of Lancaster.