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Middlebury expects 3,000 for third annual chili festival

MIDDLEBURY — Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) directors believe they have just the right, spicy recipe to trigger a much-needed spring thaw: the Third Annual Middlebury Winter Carnival and Chili Festival, an event expected to draw upwards of 3,000 people to downtown Middlebury this Saturday.
Originally imagined as a creative way to draw shoppers to downtown Middlebury during what has traditionally been a slow sales period, the chili festival has exceeded organizers’ expectations. The inaugural festival drew around 30 professional and amateur chili chefs and approximately 1,000 hungry judges. The numbers grew to 43 chefs and around 2,000 visitors last year, earning the festival a “Top 10 Winter Events” citation from the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.
As of Monday, more than 50 cooks from 17 communities in three counties (Addison, Rutland and Chittenden) had registered for a spot to win one of six chili categories and the most coveted citation: The “Peoples’ Choice Award,” which for the first time this year will feature a trophy presentation.
The event has evolved into something more than a shopping catalyst, noted BMP President Donna Donahue. It has become a must-attend event for area families to socialize and for cooks — both amateur and professional — to compete for culinary bragging rights.
“It is community building,” Donahue said, adding the festival has also emerged as an affordable family outing during challenging economic times.
“You can go out as a family and have a good time for $12; that’s a great deal,” she added.
With interest in the event rising, organizers have taken some steps this year to offer better access and amenities to those attending.
For the first time this year, the town will close Main Street — from the new roundabout to the Middlebury Community House — for the duration of the event (2-4 p.m.). The lower portion of Merchants Row (from Main Street to Carol’s Hungry Mind Café) will also be closed. This will allow pedestrians to circulate freely and easily sample chili at the six tasting points, Donahue noted.
Adult tasters each pay $3 for a button that allows them unlimited access to chili samples; children younger than 12 pay $2 for a button.
The tasters then vote on the various entries by category, of which there will be six: beef, chicken, vegetarian, game, pork and “kitchen sink,” meaning multiple varieties of protein in the same pot. Tasters will also be asked for their top choice of all, leading to the crowing of an overall people’s choice champion. That champion’s name will be featured on a trophy recently crafted by Danforth Pewter and Maple Landmark Woodcraft. The 2011 champion’s name will be etched into the trophy, along with that of American Flatbread, which took the honor in years one and two. The trophy will remain on public display and be supplemented with the names of future winners. First-place winners in individual categories will receive three-foot-by-five-foot banners as keepsakes, noted Holmes Jacobs, a BMP member and co-organizer of the chili festival.
Tasters will be able to cool off their pallets at a beverage tent to be set up near Cannon Park. There will also be a hot cocoa tent to help take the edge off any chilly weather that might persist.
Jacobs noted the festival will feature plenty of kid-friendly fun. There will be jugglers, face painting and two disc jockeys providing music.
“There will also be a surprise,” Jacob said cryptically.
Organizers said they have maximized the potential for a big turnout by making sure the festival does not conflict with other major regional events this year. For example, the festival this time will not occur on the same day as Burlington’s Mardi Gras celebration.
“That will hopefully help things this year,” said Jacobs, who is the co-owner of Two Brothers Tavern. Two Brothers won the “game” category last year with a venison chili and will again be in the competition this year.
BMP officials hope the chili festival continues to build a reputation to make it an even bigger draw in the future, with visitors looking to make a whole weekend visit out of it.
“People are already staying overnight,” Donahue said.
More information about the Third Annual Middlebury Winter Carnival and Chili Festival can be found at www.bettermiddleburypartnership.org, or by calling 388-4126. Tasting buttons can be purchased in advance from SkiHaus, Forth N’ Goal, Sweet Cecily, American Flatbread, Green Peppers, Rosie’s Restaurant and Two Brothers Tavern.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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