Forty years after St. George Island began its chili cookoff as a modest fundraiser for the volunteer fire department, and it later grew into one of Franklin County’s premier events; it came back strong last weekend.
After the coronavirus forced cancellation last year of the regional chili cookoff – which adheres to International Chili Society rules and sends its winner to the World Championship – the less structured island-wide “chili crawl” that began last year proved to be a lasting addition to the event.
“We had a bigger, more enthusiastic crowd than we expected,” said Grayson Shepard, a member of the non-profit cook-off’s board of directors. “We learned a lot this year and exceeded our expectations.”
The rejuvenated cook-off in the center of the island attracted 18 teams, far fewer than the bumper crop of year’s past. Shepard said that drop-off was in part due to the board not making a final decision on whether to go ahead with it until after a lot of teams had already decided whether or not to come down.
“We announced it in the middle of January,” he said. “That did not give people much time to plan for it.”
Shepard said he expects next year will offer more lead time. “We’re definitely going to do it, and I’ll have more teams. I can put three dozen cooks in the middle of the island, easily.”
One team that made sure they showed up was the Spice Boys, the crew of boyhood friends from Huntsville, Alabama who have made a regular appearance for the past two decades.
After finishing in the basement during their rookie seasons, the quartet of chefs worked their way up, with painstaking taste testing and grueling labor, to the point where they took first prize in both 2016 and 2017, the year when teammate Greg “The Hammer” Mechamer took the $500 top prize and then earned a 10th place at the world championship.
This year, his three other teammates swept all three of the top prizes, earning between them $1,000, nearly the entirety of which they donated back to the fire department coffers.
Taking third place was J.G. Carver, from Vestavia, Alabama, while second place went to Trevor Carver, also from Vestavia. First place was won by Scott “Mike Honcho” Abercrombie, from Huntsville.
Abercrombie paid tribute to the Nunn Better teams, under the tutelage of Paul Nunn, of Fort Pierce, which were the only other teams to ever sweep the cookoff’s top prizes.
“It went very smoothly,” said Shepard. “Fewer teams than in years past made it much easier for judging. We only had to do one round.”
With 33 “amateur” contestants at 25 locations taking part in the crawl, organizer Clint Taylor said all went well, raising more than $15,600 for the fire department, well over twice what was brought in by the cookoff’s booths.
Add to that roughly another $40,000 brought in by online auction, which ends Wednesday, plus all the additional monies raised by the fire department at their food booth, plus monies raised by the March 3 golf tournament at St. James Bay, plus various and sundry sponsorships and swag sales, and Sheryl Clouse, a member of the cookoff board, said this year’s effort should be in the neighborhood of the $100,000 raised at last year’s event.
“I am hopeful we will be close to that again,” she said.
“It’s going to be bigger and better next year,” said Shepard. “We want to bring back the greatness that the cookoff is known for.”