Pepper Eaters Find Their Inner Fire

The Queen City welcomed chili lovers and vendors from across the country yesterday as the 45th annual World’s Championship Chili Cookoff opened at Veterans Park.

MANCHESTER — With bloodshot eyes, a bright red face, and hair matted down from a fresh soaking of sweat, Concord’s Jeff Van Pelt looked more like a patient in a detox center than a participant in a Jalapeno Eating Contest — and he didn’t even make it out of the first round.

“I still can’t feel my face,” said Van Pelt, filling up on sour cream while downing a bottled water.

Van Pelt and 12 other victims, er volunteers, took part in yesterday’s event at Veterans Park, held on Opening Day of the World’s Championship Chili Cook-off, which is expected to draw thousands to the Queen City before it winds down tomorrow afternoon.

This year’s competition marks the 45th year for the World’s Championship Chili Cook-off (WCCC), the 13th year for the World’s Championship Chili Verde Cook-off and the 17th year for the World’s Championship Salsa Contest. If good weather prevails (today’s forecast calls for the possibility of showers), organizers expect close to 35,000 to visit the event, featuring chili cooks from across the country and Canada.

Last year’s opening day was marred by a heavy rainstorm, but yesterday featured sun, blue skies and steady foot traffic.

“It’s day one, and the people are here,” said Mayor Ted Gatsas. “It looks like a reasonably good turnout, but the real crowds are expected Saturday and Sunday. Last year the weather was awful on the Friday. We didn’t buy weather insurance, and we were a little smarter this year. Everyone knows it’s Chili Fest, so the weather will be fine.”

The Jalapeno Contest, sponsored by Margaritas of Manchester, featured three rounds of four contestants each, sitting on a stage and eating as many jalapeno peppers as they could in three minutes. The winners of each round were then brought back to compete in a final round, with the winner picking up a $100 gift certificate to the restaurant and a ‘Circle of Friends’ table centerpiece.

None of the participants were professional eaters. Instead, they were volunteers found randomly among Chili Fest attendees, who agreed to take part. Most had no idea what they were getting into.

“That was a bad choice on my part,” said Charlie Lacerte of Manchester, who reached the final round — somewhat reluctantly. “I grabbed some water, and as soon as I did I knew it was going to be a mistake, but I needed something to calm my stomach down. I didn’t know I was going to have to go up there again. I think I’m good.”

“I was almost glad I didn’t win the round,” said Van Pelt. “I’ve never done competitive eating like that, so I thought it would be fun. I don’t know if I would do it again, but I can say I did it. I’ll be tasting flames for the next four days.”

Lacerte suffered a gastrointestinal malfunction during the final round, and the competition was won by Jason Frechette of Avon, Conn.

“It was exciting, this was the first time for me,” said Frechette. “I’ve never been under a time constraint to eat such heat. Sour cream and grapes help cool you down, but you just have to take it like a true jalapeno-chili-pepper-eating guy.”

Last year’s WCCC drew an estimated 25,000 people to Veterans Park to take part in the festivities. An economic impact study conducted by the Manchester Economic Development Office (MEDO) pegged economic impact of the WCCC at $1.4 million to the City of Manchester and area businesses. The study said the biggest boost was felt by area hotels and restaurants, many of which sold out for the weekend.

“This really is not a revenue generator for the city,” said Gatsas. “If we can break even, and also give the charities some money, that’s fine. Last year we gave I think $22,000 to the charities, so if we can do that again, that’s a great event. It’s all about getting more people downtown. I’m sure after today, the restaurants are all going to be full tonight.”

Yesterday’s opening day featured master chili cooks from New Hampshire and across the continent.

“I love coming here,” said Bill ‘Gumby’ Donovan, a retired firefighter from Cincinnati, Ohio, who offered “Code 3” chili to attendees. “We were here last year, and the mayor, the whole community, were great. Not to mention whatever connection you have to the Lord, because the skies parted and the sun came out. We’ve got good music, good chili, good crowds — just a good day.”

“I know a lot of people who have been cooking for 25 years, and this is definitely the place to be,” said Wendy Hennessey of Hudson. “I have young kids and can’t travel much, so having the world championships here means I can compete.”

Attendees this weekend can enjoy food, games and live entertainment today and tomorrow, including the Amoskeag Beer Garden, the Kids Zone (sponsored this year by the New Hampshire Fisher Cats and Manchester Monarchs), and many great local and many great musical acts.

Today will also feature the Miss Chili Pepper Contest from 12:45 to 1:30 p.m., while Sunday showcases the Mr. Hot Sauce Contest from 1:15 to 2:15 p.m.

Among the popular food contests, winners in the Championship Chili Verde Cook-off and Championship Salsa Contest will be announced today. Tomorrow features the main event, as the winner of the Red Chili Cook-off is crowned, and presented with the $25,000 grand prize, the coveted Bronze Pot Trophy, and the title of “Worlds Best Chili Cook.”

Tickets for the event are $5 per person if purchased before the event, $7 at the event, and include five chili sampling tickets during public sampling hours (public sampling is available between 1 and 3 p.m. each day). Organizers point out that $1 of every ticket sale will be donated to the following supporting charities: Families In Transition, New Horizons, the Greater Manchester YMCA and the Manchester Rotary.

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