As I may have mentioned, St. George Island, Florida (where I was during the first week of March) is not exactly Manhattan. Its not even East Lansing, Michigan. It is quiet, and low-key and a big night for the locals involves a fried grouper basket and some beers at The Blue Parrot. Which closes at 10:00.
Once a year, however, the Island comes alive for the Annual Chili Cook-Off, a fund raiser for the local fire department. In nine years of visiting the Island I had managed to miss this even by a day or two every time, but this year, my first full day of vacation coincided with the Cook Off and I finally got to see what all the fuss was about.
On a brilliantly sunny day, Sam and I cruised the tents and booths where, for a dollar, one could purchase a sample cup of chili prepared by locals and by chili cookers from surrounding towns and states. All of the chili we tried was of the basic ground beef-beans-tomato based sauce variety, and we found some to be a little bland, some a little sweet and one (prepared by The Whistle Stop) to be a perfect balance of spicy and a hint of sweet. I am not all that picky about chili, and rarely make it the same way twice, so I was open to the cosmic rays of chili-ness coming at me from multiple pots.
Swirling around us was an astonishing level of activity for a sleepy island. It was the week of spring break for many southern colleges, and the Buccaneer Inn, a place of dubious sanitation which requires a deposit for each “guest” under the age of 21, was full of undergraduates who were drinking for 24 straight hours. They were drunk on the beach, drunk at the tents, drunk by the Porta-Potties, and engaged in various behaviors commonly associated with the drunk, liberated, and affluent young, including riding around in Hummers and vomiting discreetly onto their Abercrombie madras shorts and boat shoes. The event also attracts bikers, and the familiar chug of Harley engines was omnipresent, as were doctors, lawyers, and possibly even Indian chiefs decked out in chaps and bandanas. The townie kids were present, too, a little stoned, and a little belligerent in the face of the Abercromobie infestation. There were lots of dogs, families with children, older couples wintering on the Island, and Important People from St. George and Appalachicola glad-handing and kissing babies with charming drawls and perpetual tans.
Sam and I were most enthralled by the variety of dogs, and by the tent sponsored by The Blue Parrot, our favorite local dining establishment. Outside of their space we came upon an act of performance art involving profound Parrot Head devotion: loud Jimmy Buffet music, a crowd of swaying middle aged spectators, and a dramatic interlude involving a man dressed as a pirate, a woman dressed as a Piratess (Piratine?!) and a swordfight to the death. I can tell you that these things rarely occur in East Lansing, although its entirely possible that they occur in parts of Manhattan with which I am as yet unfamiliar.
After an hour of circulating and sampling in the sun, Sam and I repaired to the largest of the food tents, where one could purchase not mere samples but an entire meal. On offer were hot dogs, last year’s Cook Off winning chili served in a bread bowl, funnel cakes, fried shrimp on a stick, fried oysters, sloppy joes and barbecue. Sam chose the chili in a bread bowl, and I decided to try the shrimp, and to abandon my lifelong fear of oysters and try some of them, as well.
The chili was good, and the shrimp were tasty, but the fresh, sweet oysters that had, as they say, slept in the Bay the previous night, were a revelation. With a little hot sauce, they were so good that I bitterly regretted all of the wasted years when there were no oysters on my plate or in my heart. I am in love with them. I will write more about my blossoming relationship with oysters in the days to come, but suffice it to say that, although the day was meant to be all about the chili, my highlight was definitely the oysters.
So I have now been to a Chili Cook Off, and I am well pleased. I am sorry to have missed the drunken festivities that apparently occur in the evening and well into the night, which involve many college students, townies and bikers and few retired couples and families with children. I do not know about the dogs. I couldn’t really see knocking back a few in that crowd with either my parents or my 11 year old, and it seemed somewhat inappropriate for me to go alone. Although, after eating all those oysters, who knows what might have happened…?