San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Atenas Chili Cook-off gets hotter every year

More than 1,000 people came together Feb. 12 at Quinta Romavista in the western Central Valley town of Atenas to check out the chili and choose a champion at the fifth annual Atenas Chili Cook-off. Twenty-four varieties ranged from a mild vegetarian for all palates to double-indemnity hot. 

The yearly contest was started by Kay Costello of Kay’s Gringo Postres in Atenas five years ago to settle an argument among customers over who made the best chili. Voting is done with special silver beans dropped in boxes on the table of your favorite. 

Each cook had to produce at least 3 gallons of chili, but some brought more and the public ate it up. Names like Crying Chijuajua, Tico Olé, Arkansas Razorback, Alabama War Eagle, Volcanic Fire and anything with “jalapeño” in the title were clues as to the heat factor. For those with steel stomachs, there was also Devil Fire Sauce to add. The Johnny Cash Special, a vegan creation by Jaime Murphy and Kathy Keyser, was named for the song “Ring of Fire.” A mild vegetarian variety made by Atenas’ renowned sausage maker, Siegfried Haedel, was a relief. The chili crew from the U.S. Marine Corps was there and brought experience from previous cooking contests. The guys, Robert Brice, Allan Green and Bill Enell, see it as a way of helping charities.

Ironically, the hottest chili was brought by the Atenas firefighters. Diego León confessed to being the cook and using his mother’s recipe. (C’mon, Diego. Mom wouldn’t do that.) Their table included antique helmets and other items from the station’s collection. They should have included a hose! 

Another hottie was made by Margaret and Steve Macik of Grecia, who combined recipes and “just kind of kept tasting it” until it came out right.

The winner, according to the judges, was the Chesapeake Chili made by Stephen Rodman and Jo Ann Pellegrine, who hail from the U.S. state of Maryland and sported crab designs on their attire. The most popular choice, according to the bean count, was made by Norm Florez of Jalapeño’s restaurant in Alajuela.

Quinta Romavista’s spacious grounds and gardens had pleasant shaded areas for sitting and sipping cool drinks and sampling sandwiches or cake, while Frances Jones, a professional singer from the U.S. Southeast and now of Atenas, and local Richard del Río sang out “oldies” from the 50s and 60s. Chili queen Susan Rojas, 26, added charm and beauty, strolling among the guests wearing a rhinestone tiara atop her cowboy hat.

This annual chili-chucking event not only determines the choicest chili in the land, but also helps out the Hogar de Vida, a home for children who are orphaned, abandoned or removed from their homes by the Child Welfare Office, a favorite beneficiary for Costello and her customers. The amount to be donated this year hasn’t been determined yet, but it will provide a lot of extras for the home and the kids.

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