CORTLAND — Chili is not a dish one comes by often at the table of Brian Hall and Karen Leahy.
“He doesn’t like beans and I’m a vegetarian,” the Cortland lawyer said Saturday as she and Hall stood outside the Deli Downtown in Cortland. Hall’s mouth was full of a black bean chipotle sweet potato chili with an avocado-lime creme fraiche topping. It was the second chili he’d had that afternoon with sweet potato. He ate it all.
“I’m not usually a big chili eater,” Leahy said. It’s difficult to find a recipe everyone will eat when one doesn’t like beans, the other doesn’t like meat and the biggest chili debate of all is meat or beans (or both.)
This chili, however, was part of Chill-A-Bration, an annual excuse to draw people out of their winter-weary, cabin-feverish cocoons and into a small city that promises a spring sometime in the next few months.
People like Aaron and Nicole LaFave of Sherrill in Oneida County schlepped their kids 70 miles just to get a taste of the Korean Conflict chili Jane Witty made at the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Main Street.
The VFW ran out last year, and they wanted to make sure they caught it this time. It was a different recipe, though, one Witty said she flavored with gochujang, a spicy-sweet fermented Korean condiment that gave the original Tex-Mex dish a distinct 38th Parallel flair.
“It’s a nod to the Olympics — and the vets,” Witty said.
No beans, though, all meat. “You need the right amount of heat,” Nicole LaFave said about her favorite chili.
“I like a little smoke. Hickory,” Aaron LaFave added, and was looking forward to the venison chili the YMCA was serving.
So, someone asked Kevin Hinshaw of Cortland, who was serving the Korean Conflict chili: beans or no beans?
“Are you a purist?” he asked. The traditional, 200-year-old, Texas-based meal was meat and chilis. Beans came later and some of the traditional purists still scoff at the concept. For Hinshaw, though, the heat is what makes it a good chili. “If the head starts sweating a bit, that’s perfect,” Hinshaw said. And if steam comes off his bald scalp when he steps outside, all the better.
Down the street and around the corner, David Rutherford and Maria Gimma of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County ladled out a ground turkey chili with no more heat than available in the can of tomatoes. It had sweet potato and bay, though, giving it a sweeter taste than the traditional.
Adam Megivern and Cindy Guy of the Cortland Downtown Partnership discussed the appropriate balance of heat and spice and sweet and whether beans or not.
“I like for it to burn for a while afterward,” Megivern said, and he likes white chicken chili.
Guy adds celery to her recipe and sometimes cocoa — a traditional Central American thing. She’s heard of people using cinnamon, too. They watched as people trooped in to Cortland Beer Co. in twos and threes and sometimes a dozen. They knew they’d see 500 people in downtown Cortland, expected 800 and hoped for 1,000.
Around the corner, between the Finger Lakes Tasting Room and Long Island Bagel, C.J. Kuretich wiggled like a bug on the sidewalk, or maybe an inchworm, as passersby egged him on and his parents laughed. He’s 6 1/2, and very proud of the half. What’s he like in chili? It warms him up. “Because I’m chilly.”
But not daddy’s chili. “It’s spicy,” he said. Next to him, Chris Kuretich explained: “Chili powder and cayenne.”
Andrea Kuretich thought carefully about the chili gold standard. “The ideal chili should have a really good base, a nice meat base,” she said. “Not a lot of spice.” One can see where C.J. gets his taste buds from and wonder whether 2-year-old Eve or 9-month-old Zoe will appreciate cayenne.
A couple of blocks away, at the Local Store and Whole Heart Cafe, Alexandra Huntington-Ofner sold tickets to Chill-A-Bration as the scent of a vegetarian black bean chili with poblano peppers wafted through the store. That scent is important to her — more important than the taste.
And the event is more important than the chili, said the woman of several hats with the Cortland County Mental Health Department. “When people are more connected to the community, they are more resilient,” she said.
Connected like a bit of beans, a bit of meat and a bit of spice — no two quite the same, but with differences people can share.