In Wichita, three sure signs indicate that fall is near: The weather gets cooler. The days get shorter. And the Wagonmasters start cooking chili.
Saturday is the annual Wichita Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff, an event that attracts chili cooks and tasters, both serious and casual, to a closed-off section of Douglas downtown.
The cookoff pits teams of chili cooks against each other, all competing for prizes for their chili, their spirit and the creativity of their booths.
The competing teams are all as different as the chili, which includes beany and beanless. The event includes groups of hardcore chili competitors trying to earn a spot in next months' World Championship Chili Cook Off serving next to groups of co-workers or friends interested only in having a good time.
"We have the real serious people, and we also have a lot of teams who are there just to have fun and drink beer all day ," said Stacia Frasco, who works on the cookoff's organizing committee.
This year, the festival has more of both.
Already, 50 teams have signed up to compete, an increase over last year's 35. The groups will cook on-site (they're required to make four gallons each) then serve their recipes up to attendees who've purchased $5 tasting kits.
They'll also serve a panel of sanctioned judges, who take their jobs very seriously — in a cleansing-their-palates-between-samples kind of way.
Chili eating is not the only activity at the cook-off.
This year, children whose parents purchase them tasting kits will get a wristband to ride kiddie rides.
The event will include live music from popular local Cajun/Zydeco band the Mudbugs.
There will also be a salsa competition and a chili pepper-eating contest, which brave people can sign up for on site.
Chili will be served starting at noon. Samplers will be asked to vote for a People's Choice winner, and those who don't get enough to eat can get a full-sized bowl of chili and fixin's from the Wagonmasters.
Organizers are hoping for a crowd of 5,000 people, and money raised will go toward scholarships for local college students.
The event is always a good time, Frasco said, and it's a tasty way to welcome the change of seasons.
"It feels like what the River Festival Block Party used to be," she said. "Everyone's friendly, and it feels like a family affair."
If you go
WICHITA WAGONMASTERS DOWNTOWN CHILI COOKOFF
What: A chili competition that includes a public tasting
Where: 600 block of East Douglas, between St. Francis and the railroad tracks
When: Public tasting starts at noon Saturday.
How much: Tasting kits are $5 a person.
For more information, visit wagonmasterschili.com.