Martha's Vineyard Prepares For WMVY's Big Chili Contest

The tent was packed for the Mariachi Band during the WMVY Big Chili Contest in 2012.
Don Parkinson - The tent was packed for the Mariachi Band during the WMVY Big Chili Contest in 2012.

This Saturday thousands of mainlanders will board Steamship Authority boats in Woods Hole, and head due south to Martha’s Vineyard with their hearts set on chili washed down with a few beers and margaritas, topped off with the cool sound of some mariachis.

The annual party known as chili fest - officially it is dubbed WMVY’s Annual Big Chili Contest - is the one event that brings a summerlike ambiance to the winter doldrums on Cape Cod.

Now in its 27th year, chili fest has the feelings of an adult frat party without the accompaniment of the adolescent behavior. Joy and frivolity abound with the understanding that all the madness is for a good cause as proceeds go to benefit The Red Stocking Fund, an island charity that benefits the needy.

iO caught up with past attendees who shared their thoughts on what makes the event so much fun.

Greg Orcutt (WMVY Manager)

“The one thing I can think of off-hand is there was a couple who first met at the chili contest,” Orcutt said. “A few years later they got engaged there and then last year they had their 10th anniversary with their entire wedding party at the chili contest.”

Can other attendees expect the same sort of luck when it comes to love? “I’m sure there’s been a few relationships that have happened as a result of it,” he laughed.

The event, he said, “is the biggest thing that happens between Christmas in Edgartown and the start of summer” on the island, and has even attracted celebrities like the Farrelly brothers and Jim Belushi in the past.

Jenny Johnson (Co-Host of NECN's "TV Diner")

2013 will mark Johnson’s third year at chili fest. “This is a weekend that I look forward to all year long,” she said. “Quite the cast of characters make their way onto the island every year… It’s kind of like Halloween meets Mardi Gras, on an island in the dead of winter.”

While chili is the focus, she said, the liquor only adds to the fun, “and sometimes chaos; drinking does start before noon. It's honestly like nothing else I have ever seen before.”

“Anyone who hasn’t been, it’s a must,” she said. “It needs to be on everyone’s bucket list.”

Bill Hart (Executive Chef at The Black Dog Tavern) 

It has been three years since Hart and his crew won the top honors, in the professional category, at the Big Chili Contest.

In the last two years, The Black Dog has finished runner-up to The Little Red Smokehouse in Carver, with whom they have developed a friendly rivalry. “We’ve gone back and forth with them the last five or six years,” Mr. Hart said. “I’m hoping to win it this year.”

This entire week, he has been tweaking his recipe which consists of “a lot of meat” and “not a lot of beans… We use a mixture of beef, pork and turkey,” he said, stressing that “I’m not a bean guy. I like a nice meaty chili.”

While his focus is on bringing home a first place trophy, he said, there is plenty to keep audiences entertained “from the bar and shot girls walking around to all the different booths… It is always a fun day we look forward to, especially when it is this slow in the winter.”

JB Blau (Owner of Sharky's Cantina)

Over the years, Blau has flirted with opening a Sharky’s in Falmouth. Of course he realized the best advertising for promoting the idea was not on television, but at chili fest. “We even put up a sign one year at chili fest that said, ‘See you this spring in Falmouth,” he said.

When spring eventually came that year to Falmouth, Sharky’s did not. “We took a lot of heat for that,” Blau laughed.

Since then Blau has wisely refrained from teasing his fans on this side of Nantucket Sound. “No, we are not opening in Falmouth,” he said. “We’ve always loved to, but we want it to be right.”

So for Blau and his staff chili fest is the one winter event that allows them to reconnect with their off-Island customers in Falmouth that they last saw the previous summer.

In a way, for islanders like Blau, chili fest represents the hope of warmer and busier days ahead. "It's like the unofficial halfway point of winter," he said. "It pretty much starts the downhill roll into summer. Once chili fest arrives we are really are preparing for summer and before you know it, you blink and it is July.”

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