SOUTH PORTLAND, ME - JANUARY 30: Hot chili and chowder is served up at the chili/chowder cookoff at the Wainwright Recreation Comples Saturday, January 30, 2016. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)

Hot chili and chowder are served up Saturday at the chili-chowder cookoff at the Wainwright Recreation Complex. Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — After working a half-day at her salon in Knightville, then picking up a dog crate from her son’s house near the Maine Mall, Allison Stailing stopped at Hannaford to get the ingredients for corn chowder – dinner for her family that night and her entry in the chili-chowder challenge at South Portland’s annual Winterfest the next day.

When she got home, she realized she’d forgotten something: frozen corn.

“You know the term ‘fly by the seat of your pants?’ ” said Stailing’s friend and sometimes sous chef, Heidi Colton.

Stailing texted another son to pick up a couple of bags of corn on his way home from shopping in Freeport and got started on the soup.

With her own business and seven children between her and her husband, two of whom live at home, Stailing, 49, often doesn’t have time to plan ahead.

Last year, her first time entering the cooking contest, she made a white chicken chili because she thought it would stand out from the traditional versions at the fundraiser for her youngest son’s South Portland High hockey team.

But it was her first time making the recipe, and she didn’t have the timing down.

“My carrots wouldn’t cook and I was in a panic,” she said. “I had been just too busy to even worry about it.”

She got to the South Portland Community Center with only her crock-pot in hand to find other contestants with tablecloths and signs.

In the end, however, it didn’t matter. By two votes, she won.

“A total fluke,” Stailing said.

She hadn’t realized then that she could have made a chowder, and no one else did. So, this year, with a similar strategy, she decided she’d make her mother’s corn chowder – one of the first things she learned to cook.

“This is my favorite recipe that I ever make,” she said, chopping onions and bacon on a cutting board on her kitchen counter Friday.

The secret?

“Don’t skimp on calories,” she said, as she dropped butter by the half-stick into the pot.

•••

Stailing didn’t start cooking until she was in her late 20s and married to her first husband.

Growing up in Bath, she had several relatives, including her mother, who were talented cooks, which gave her little motivation to learn.

Allison Stailing hands out samples of her corn chowder at the chili-chowder challenge in South Portland last Saturday.

Allison Stailing hands out samples of her corn chowder at the chili-chowder challenge in South Portland. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

“When you had great cooks like that at home, why bother?” she said. “You can just eat.”

Her family members used to say she’d need to take culinary arts classes if she was going to survive, but once put to the test, she ended up having skills of her own. Pulled pork and whoopie pies are among her specialties.

“Everything she cooks is good,” said Colton, who kept her company Friday.

That’s fortunate for Stailing’s family. Although her children’s father could cook, her current husband is notorious for his kitchen disasters. He’s managed to ruin boil-in-a-bag rice and one time burned spaghetti.

Stailing gets some help from Colton, who will come over and peel potatoes, then stay for dinner. But, for the chowder recipe, the potatoes keep their skins, and the chef wasn’t about to let anyone else mess with her recipe.

“I don’t cut them to the proper cube size,” Colton said of the potatoes.

Although Stailing eyeballs most of the recipe – the chicken bouillon, the half-and-half, how much corn and how many potatoes – she’s a self-described control freak and, like the rest of her family, competitive.

“Monopoly games could get very rough at our house,” she said.

After letting the ingredients simmer in the pot, she got out a spoon to test and see if she had added enough salt.

“And it’s perfect,” she said.

•••

Inside the warming hut at the Wainwright Recreation Complex on Saturday, aluminum chafing dishes were lined up along fold-out tables. A piece of paper with a number hung in front of each entry, and the six contestants stood behind them.

Stailing was No. 4.

Allison Stailing talks with son Caleb Rowland, a hockey player at South Portland High whose team will benefit from the chili-chowder challenge in South Portland last weekend. “Everything she cooks is good,” says her friend and sometimes sous chef Heidi Colton.

Allison Stailing talks with her son Caleb Rowland, a hockey player at South Portland High whose team will benefit from the chili-chowder challenge. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Most brought chili – vegetarian, turkey and chicken, Texas-style. Brian Lovering, who came in a close second last year, was back with two kinds – a Guinness-based beef chili and a chicken version made with tequila.

The only other chowder was made by Megan Wallace. The mother of a Memorial Middle School student, Wallace had never competed before but pulled out all the stops. Her soup had four kinds of fish, and she brought her own bowls, which were twice the size of the plastic sample cups handed out at the entrance to the tent.

“I really think it’s stepped up,” Stailing said about her competition.

As tasters filed through the tent, the contestants promoted their offerings while ladling them into the tiny cups.

“You’re going to love this – old, family recipe,” Stailing said to Frank Butterworth, a Rotary member with programs for the festival stuffed into the front pocket of his apron.

He tipped the cup back until it hit the hairs of his mustache.

“Delicious,” he said.

Some people finished off each sample before moving to the next station, while others collected all six entries, lined them up in a row and sat down to judge. When they were finished, at a table by the entrance to the tent, they wrote the number of their favorite dish on a piece of paper and put it in a bag.

•••

A steady stream of eaters kept coming in from the cold, where kids ice skated and horses gave carriage rides, well after the scheduled end of the cook-off at 1 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, ME - JANUARY 30: Fabian Yue (cq), of Hong Kong, an exchange student at South Portland high school, takes a break while sampling a variety of chilis at the chili/chowder cookoff at the Wainwright Recreation Complex Saturday, January 30, 2016. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)

Fabian Yue of Hong Kong, an exchange student at South Portland High, takes a break while sampling a variety of chilis.

When a contestant ran out of chili, however, Rob Winson, the treasurer of the hockey boosters, cut off the voting.

The contestants talked among themselves as they cleaned up their stations, putting away serving spoons and piling up dirty pans.

Without any warning, a call came out from the corner of the tent, where Winson had counted the ballots dropped into the brown paper bag.

“Two, one, five,” the voice said – the fish chowder won, followed by Lovering’s entries and the Texas-style chili.

“I didn’t even come in third!” Stailing said, laughing. “I thought I had it, too.”

As she picked up her crock-pot and grabbed the hockey stick her son had left behind, she started thinking aloud about next year.

“I think I’m going to go back to chili,” she said.