FLEMING ISLAND – Some samplings at this year’s First Responder Chili Cookoff were spicy. Some were sweet. Some were savory. Each bowl had a distinct flavor profile, comprised with or without …
FLEMING ISLAND – Some samplings at this year’s First Responder Chili Cookoff were spicy. Some were sweet. Some were savory. Each bowl had a distinct flavor profile, comprised with or without beans, chicken, beef or pork. One participant offered a green concoction, Chili “Verde,” made without tomatoes or chili powder.
Each bowl brought something different to the table, but each shared one thing in common: a delicious first bite.
Members of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, Fire Rescue, Emergency Management, District Schools Police Department and the Green Cove Springs and Orange Park police departments competed for the best pot of chili Sunday at Whitey’s Fish Camp.
While the agencies were competing for a trophy, the real prize was bragging rights until next year’s event.
“The voting was real close this year,” said event coordinator Susan Lightsey. “First place won by between five and 10 votes. The difference between second and third was just one vote.”
Taste testers voted to bestow the trophy – and the accompanying bragging rights – to CCSO Deputy Traci McLaughlin’s chili, which stood out among 20 entries.
Green Cove Spring Police Chief E.J. Guzman finished second, while firefighter Andrew Fraley was third.
The event benefited Clay County’s Signal 35 Fund, which helps first responders and their families during times of need.
“Our goal was to raise $2,000,” Lightsey said. “Although we cut off the entries this year (from 22 last year) to 20, we raised $2,600. Things went very, very well. Because I had other things to do, I only ate a little bit of the chili, but what I tasted was impressive.”
Runner-up Guzman said he ran out of chili first.
“I tasted most of the entries, and I thought the first-place winner had a really good taste,” he said. “I knew mine tasted good, but I wasn’t sure how it would be received. I thought I had a winning chance when people started coming back for seconds and thirds. Also, people started asking about my recipe.
“I noticed my pot was the first to be empty, so I figured that was a good sign.”
Lightsey said organizers are already working on the 2024 competition.
“We learned a lot from last year to this year, especially with how things were arranged,” she said. “We moved things around so there was a better flow. Things definitely ran smoother.”
Another change was the prizes. Instead of a silent auction, guests bought tickets and won items in a raffle.
“We’re thinking about expanding things next year, maybe to the outside porch area,” Lightsey said. “Or at least, we’ll move the raffle items to another part of the restaurant. That way, we’ll open up even more room.”
Whitey’s will turn up the spice again during the first weekend of February with its annual Chili Cookoff Open. Unlike the First Responders event, where participants vote for winners, a panel of judges will determine the winner.