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McKinney School

Great chili, with a side of dancing

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A celebration of Americana to send eighth-graders to America’s capital, this year’s annual McKinney Chili Cook-Off is doubling down on national nostalgia with the addition of square dancing and bluegrass music.

In its 38th year, the cook-off is a local winter tradition for the cause of civic education, and a fun, competitive night for kid and adult cooks alike, according to organizer Chris Wyatt this week. It’s also a good reason to get out of the house on a cold February night.

“Chili is warm and comforting during a grim winter,” Wyatt said.

The McKinney Chili Cook-off and Barn Dance takes place Saturday, Feb. 17, from 5 to 8 p.m. at Yellow Springs High School, 420 E. Enon Road. It costs $10 for adults, $5 for students and $20 per family, while children under five get in free.

To enter a chili, organizers ask adults to pay $5 per entry (students can enter for free), and to bring their chili by 4 p.m. Judging begins at 4:30 p.m., the public enters at 5 p.m., the barn dance steps off at 6 p.m. and winning cooks are announced at 7 p.m.

Proceeds from the event help offset the cost of the eighth grade’s trip to Washington D.C., a three-day sightseeing whirlwind that includes visits to the Washington Mall, Arlington National Cemetery, the Holocaust Museum, Mount Vernon, Gettysburg and more. 

More than 60 students are signed up so far for the annual trip, which McKinney performance teacher Lorrie Sparrow-Knapp said is more than an education in our democracy’s hardships and higher principles — it’s a “rite of passage” for students on the threshold of high school.

“Our seventh-graders go ‘into the wild,’ and our eighth-graders go into civilization,” Sparrow-Knapp said. “This trip shows them that they are just a little closer to being able to stand on their own feet in the big wide world.”

Music will be provided by local band The Corndrinkers, purveyors of “old-time and traditional country music featuring twin fiddles, banjo, guitar and bass,” according to the group’s website. And a professional caller will be on hand to tell dancers when to do-si-do and when to promenade. But amateur dancers should not fret, Sparrow-Knapp said, and her students, who have already learned the basics of reels and partner dancing, can lead the way.

“We are not looking for perfection,” Sparrow-Knapp said. “We want people to come out and have a fun community dance.”

Last year more than 20 chilis went crock-to-crock, including vegan chili, vegetarian chili, chili verde, white chili and Texas-style chili con carne. They featured spice levels from mild to hot and a wide variety of meats such as chicken, pork, goat, lamb, beef and turkey, Wyatt said.

“Every single domesticated animal was turned into chili,” he said. 

Although some chili cook-offs can have arcane rules, forbidding the use of beans, pasta or masa in certain styles, Wyatt said the only requirement for this event is that the chili contain chili peppers in some form — anything else goes. Last year’s winning chili listed pineapple and chocolate among its ingredients. Above all, it’s the melange of favors that matters, not necessarily the components, and past winners have surprised everyone, Wyatt said. 

“Local history says a vegan chili can win against a prime rib chili,” Wyatt said.

Chili cooks will be competing for three awards, each with a basket of prizes. The People’s Choice award is voted on by attendees, while awards for Best Student Chili and Best Adult Chili will be judged in a blind tasting by an expert panel.

This year’s judges have serious chops: Mary Kay Smith, chef and owner of The Winds Café, Brian Rainey, owner and head chef of Sunrise Café, Isaac DeLamatre, chef and food service coordinator at Antioch College, Mariano Rios, chef and owner of La Pampa Mobile Grill and Jody Farrar, a local chef.

A past winner himself, Wyatt offered a final piece of advice to cook-off contenders: bring enough chili. Last year, all the chili ran out in 90 minutes.

A complementary fundraiser at the cook-off is the sale of handmade pottery bowls by the McKinney “Clay Dogs,” for $3 to $5, to be filled with chili and to take home. A project of intervention specialist Jodi Chick’s classes, all proceeds will further support the D.C. trip.

During an eight-week project-based learning unit in the fall, Chick’s students, as well as students with disabilities from Mills Lawn Elementary School, made large bowls, sample-size bowls and decorative magnets to sell at the cook-off, according to Chick. The project has already been generously supported by the community, and culminates in the sale of the pieces at the cook-off.  

“The bowls weren’t recyclable last year, so if people are willing to buy one of our bowls, they only need to bring a spoon,” Chick said. Villagers can bring their own service if they would prefer, organizers said.

Sparrow-Knapp said she hopes the cook-off raises at least $1,000 — last year they made close to $800 — to offset trip costs   that Wyatt reported are more than $600 per student. 

It’s important for as many students as possible to go, because the experience of traveling to D.C. with one’s peers and teachers can be life-changing, Sparrow-Knapp insisted. Last year students met former Senator Bob Dole at the World War II Memorial, along with honor flight veterans who were transported to the capital to visit their memorials at no cost. The experience of talking with veterans moved several students to tears, Sparrow-Knapp said. 

Additionally, this year students will visit a chili restaurant at the epicenter of the civil rights movement and attend a play about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

The trip is an opportunity for students to “confront the hardship and truth of America” and “the struggles that continue on,” while also finding the beauty in American ideals, Sparrow-Knapp emphasized.

“We think students are cynical, but there is something about Washington, D.C.,” Sparrow-Knapp said. “Even though it is literally built on top of a swamp, the American principles underlying Washington are still beautiful.” 

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