The North Windham Union Church Parish Hall will be the place to warm up on Saturday. Garlic, warm ground beef, tomato, peppers and cumin scents will fill the air.

Folks can pack their gullets when area chefs and a few aspiring foodies compete for first place in the inaugural Great Chili Challenge.

From 2 to 7 p.m., different tables will dole out samples of your style of chili, be it bean or no bean, hot or mild. The proceeds will go to the Windham Community Garden on Route 202. For a $5 fee ($3 for kids under 12), participants can sample as often as they like. Bread will be present to cleanse the palate between tastings and cut any heat from any super-spicy samples.

“It’ll be fun,” said Marge Govoni, Community Garden member. “We’ll also have a table set up with information about the garden on how folks can either volunteer or reserve a plot there. We’ll have home-baked goods for sale, too.”

And just who will choose the champion chili? None other than the Lakes Region’s local dignitaries, of course. State Reps. Mark Bryant and Gary Plummer, as well as state Sen. Bill Diamond, will give careful scrutiny.

Windham resident and County Commissioner Mallory Shaughnessy, no stranger to a good food contest – she’s judged at the Portland chili and chowder events – will also make up the panel. But there’ll be a “People’s Choice” category as well.

“Folks will get a set of tickets,” explained Rob Juergens, Community Garden member and local foodie, who’ll be serving up his own tried-and-true formula. “You can divide your tickets among your favorites or put them all into a single cook’s tin. The one with the most in a tin will win that category.”

Chili challenges seem to be arenas where cooking competition naturally thrives. Perhaps it’s the multitude of variations of bean blends and tons of tomato types that lead cooks to challenge one another.

A little research about the history of this concoction says chili likely originated as the poor-folk food. And despite what you may be led to believe, it’s not a particularly popular dish south of the border in Mexico.

According to whatscookingamerica.net, what we know as “chili” likely came from infinite varieties of spicy Spanish stews. Some say our traditional New England fare is somewhat bland because Puritans purposely left out spices, which were thought to excite the spirit. Similarly, when encountered with Mexican peppers, some Spanish priests supposedly shunned them because they appeared “hot as hell’s brimstone.” Any stew made from them was labeled as “the soup of the devil.”

Our modern chili may have originated with Texas cowboys of the gold rush era. Trail cooks came up with a dried-out amalgamation of pounded beef, fat, pepper, salt and chili peppers. It apparently packed well when made into stackable rectangles, which could later be rehydrated with boiling water.

Yum.

Or does chili hail from the culinary artistry of the Texas prison system of the late 1800s? Lone Star State prisons supposedly made such good chili that freed inmates often wrote for the recipe, saying what they missed most after leaving was a really good bowl of chili.

No doubt Saturday’s offerings will be a bit more refined than cowboy fare or what might be ladled up in prison. Local restaurants, including Buck’s Naked BBQ, Bear Bonz, Gilbert’s Chowder House, Thatcher’s and The Bread Shack in Auburn, will be among some 15 contenders. And if you like a certain chili enough, you can try your hand at replicating it at home. Recipe cards will be offered at each table.

“We’re hoping to make it an annual fundraising event,” Juergens said. “We’ve got a lot of individuals who’ve been talking trash about their chili and throwing down the gauntlet. It should be a good time.”

 

Don Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Raymond. He can be reached at: [email protected]