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Chili cookoff scales back shindig

David Adlerstein
The Apalachicola Times

Consider the St. George Island chili cookoff to be “unplugged.”

There’s not going to be raucousness and electronic music, in fact there won’t be any live music, and there’s not going to be people sitting together on folding chairs under a tent, bidding on items paraded before their eyes to the call of an auctioneer.

There won’t be a crowd of people drinking beer, shelling out $5 admission to fill the fenced-off heart of the island on the first Saturday in March.

Cathie Korfanty, with Over the Limit Chili, won the 2020 cookoff, At right is cookoff director Grayson Shepard.

Forget about 50 or more booths of competitors, many of them returning veterans to an event that is easily the most popular in the Panhandle, and a contender for best in the Southeast, each cooking up their finest to impress a panel of two dozen judges, gleaned from local taste buds, enough to earn them cash, and to the winner, a berth in the International Chili Society world competition.

Forget about seeing women peel bananas with their feet in the Miss Chili Pepper competition, or men puffing up their airs of manlitude in the Mr. Hot Sauce challenge.

No, just like tomatoes don’t grow on trees, and habanero peppers don’t spring from the ground overnight, the cookoff is not going to happen as expected. Because the organizers, wisely, are of one mind that now is not the time to throw, for the 39th year in a row, a party on a grand scale.

So instead, they are going to do a littler, maybe half the size, shebang, instead of a whole one.

“Though we will not have the big Chili Cookoff crowd gathering competition, band, live auction, or beer vendors on Saturday, we will still have many of our great events,” wrote the organizers in issuing their announcement following a Feb. 3 meeting with the St. George Island volunteer fire department.

“We collectively decided that with the elevated positive case numbers in Franklin County coupled with the slower-than-anticipated vaccination schedule, the risk to the community was too great,” said board member Grayson Shepard. “Nobody opposed it.

“We would be throwing an event that would attract a lot of people to community, possibly a super-spreader event, and we could potentially be liable for it,” he said. “There was fear of what could possibly happen.

“We are a vacation destination and people have been flocking here during this entire pandemic. People have been coming here steadily,” Shepard said.

He said about two dozen teams were committed to attending, and many will be on the island as part of their regular yearly trip down here. But there will be no formal competition, even though the International Chili Society had left it up to the local organizers, requiring only a minimum of 15 participants.

In addition, the event would have had to work around the loss of its two beer vendors, Cone and Triangle Budweiser, because their policy is not to do public events now due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“They worked us out a deal for cases of beer, but we would have to open the beer and pour it in a cup and hand it to people,” he said. “Another logistical nightmare.”

The cook-off still plans to host its golf tournament on Thursday, March 4, and the Red Pepper Run on Saturday, March 6, as well as an online auction all week long, where people can submit bids electronically.

“Right now we’re thinking that non on Saturday, March 6 of parking some fire trucks in the public parking lot and the volunteer fire department selling chili and hotdogs to-go to help offset the financial loss,” Shepard said.

He noted that last year’s event, held just days before the entire nation began issuing shutdown orders, affording the cookoff a chance to narrowly miss a potential catastrophe.

He said the 2020 cookoff had come about at the same time as a super spreader event in Albany, Georgia had drawn national attention.

“We dodged the bullet,” he said. “Do we really want to spin that cylinder and put a gun to our heads and try it again?”